Credit: Luke White

Link Up Illinois, a three-person operation out of the Experimental Station, manages Link Match—a grant funded program that both doubles the amount of fruit and vegetables Illinois SNAP users can purchase, while supporting local and regional food producers by increasing and expanding residents’ access to fresh, locally and regionally grown food. Nearly two million low-income people in Illinois, 930,000 of them in Cook County, receive monthly federal financial assistance to purchase food via the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). 

Liz Abunaw, the owner of Forty Acres Fresh Market grocery store and delivery service, has worked with Link Up Illinois and the Link Match program since 2020. Abunaw said that Link Up and community groups have done an incredible job expanding the program, noting that, “They’re going to where the consumers are” and making the LINK Match coupons universal means that a midweek meat purchase at a participating grocery store can turn into produce at a weekend farmers market supported by Link Match. 

Abunaw described the Link Match program as adding “fuel to a fire”, but the problem she sees is that “it’s very contained.” Abunaw would like to see the state agencies develop a “cohesive plan of action” to educate Link users about Link Match and strategies to utilize the maximum benefit from the moment they start receiving benefits. “With this kind of offer, more people who shop with Link should know of Link Match’s existence so they can use it,” she said.  

Link Up, which takes its name from the Link card that Illinois residents receive their SNAP benefits on, works to increase awareness of the matching benefit and make it easier for SNAP recipients to access it, farmers markets and grocers to implement it, and local and regional farmers to sell more fruit and vegetables, said Matthew Ruffi, Link Up’s program manager since last summer. 

Last year, Link Up provided grant funding to enable more than one hundred farmers markets, food cooperatives, community-supported agriculture subscriptions, delivery services, and grocers across the state to double Link’s buying power. At farmers markets, farm stands, CSAs, and mobile markets, the Link match can be as high as $25 per transaction. Link Up is now accepting applicants for its 2024 Link Match grant program.   

Link Up and the Link matching program has come a long way since the Experimental Station first debuted the program at its 61st Street Farmers Market in 2009. At the time, the idea was a philanthropic project of the Wholesome Wave Foundation along with the Experimental Station and the Illinois Farmers Market Association. The program caught enough attention that the 2014 federal farm bill allocated funds to provide matching grants for SNAP fruit and vegetable purchases. The program was seen as successful enough that the 2018 farm bill doubled the program’s funding. 

The city of Chicago also funds Link Up to make sure that Link Match is offered at all Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events public farmers markets in the spring, summer, and fall. 

Link Match offers a clear benefit for both the consumer and the producer (especially producers who are in the local or regional food system), particularly in communities with low food access, where many SNAP recipients don’t have many options about where to buy their food. It’s estimated that more than a quarter of all SNAP benefits are spent at Walmart and 95 percent of SNAP recipients use Walmart at least once a year. This means that the food SNAP users purchase tend to be processed foods or products of a fragile, carbon intensive food system. 

The Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a nonprofit that supports small farmers and food producers, estimates that 95 percent of all the food that’s consumed in Illinois originates outside the state’s border. Farmers markets provide an essential outlet for small and regional food producers to sell their products directly to consumers. A recent Congressional Research Service report highlighted that SNAP purchases at farmers markets nationwide total around $43 million, less than .05 percent of all SNAP purchases. 

To combat these conditions and reach even more people, Link Match expanded to traditional grocery stores in 2021. Brick and mortar stores tend to see higher usage of SNAP. Link Match is now active in nine grocers in the Chicago area including two Jewel Oscos and a Cermak Market, two food cooperatives, and Forty Acres Fresh Market, to name a few. 

While the match that participating grocery stores offer is lower overall than at a farmers market, because many grocers accept Link already, adding the matching component can be quite easy, Ruffi said. The other benefit of the still relatively new grocery program is the program has improved access to fresh fruits and vegetables at stores that might not otherwise prioritize carrying them.  

“We want access to food first,” Ruffi said. “You can take things to the next level like helping businesses with aspirational goals and sourcing locally.” Many of the conversations Link Match staff have with corner stores and small grocers about sourcing starts small and grows from there. In smaller stores, measurable fruit and vegetable sale increases can come from things as simple as having apples and bananas at the cash register and a clerk to say that the fruit is free with a Link purchase. 

Once stores that weren’t selling fruit or vegetables start to see more demand and sales, Ruffi said, store owners and managers can start to source more and better produce. Ruffi is hopeful that Link Up could get close to doubling the number of brick-and-mortar stores that Link Match is accepted in this year.

The administrative burden—a phrase coined by policy professors Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan to describe the ways in which government program design can inhibit or create barriers to utilizing benefits—does appear to sit with the Link user to identify farmers markets and grocery stores which accept Link, and of those, Link Match participants. 

If you visit the Illinois Link card page on the Illinois Department of Human Services’ website for example, you’ll find that Link Match is not mentioned in the program brochure FAQ or PDF. Only by sleuthing the links in the sidebar can you find an article called “Farmers Markets that Accept the Illinois Link Card” which directs you to a list of markets that accept LINK and asterisks that indicate Link Match or “double value coupons” is accepted. 

On market days at the Austin Town Hall Market, which Abunaw and Forty Acres manage, Abunaw said customers using Link will often try to start their shopping at Forty Acres, but she and the staff direct them to start shopping with other vendors so a customer can come back for the Link Match-eligible produce last to maximize the benefit. 

One way to raise public awareness is through expanding the Link Match program further. At the same time, one can’t help but wonder why every farmers market or grocery store in the city isn’t offering Link Match yet, especially when the Link Match grant application itself takes “ten minutes to fill out,” Ruffi said. Farm stands, CSAs, and especially farmers markets tend to run into two barriers—the initial cost of electronic benefit transfer equipment and staffing. 

After applying for a Link Match grant, a farmers market or store that hasn’t accepted Link before will need to file some paperwork with the state. While Link Up doesn’t provide the electronic benefit transfer equipment (a machine to scan the Link card essentially)—there are specific vendors who sell the equipment. In some cases, these vendors have their own grant programs. Link Up is now working with some services to try and subsidize the processing equipment, Ruffi said. 

Link Up offers grant funding for administration and marketing, defraying the fees associated with processing SNAP transactions, and training volunteers and staff in operations and reporting requirements for the program. 

Staffing is the other major barrier for farmers markets. Ruffi, a self-described “recovering corporate guy” who helped launch the Uptown Farmers Market, is well aware that this can be an issue at volunteer-run markets even before offering Link Match. Staffing a market’s Link booth does take some experience—particularly with processing the transaction and record keeping, and Ruffi acknowledges that finding a couple people to fill this role consistently during the long market season can be a real challenge. Some markets use a portion of their grant funds to compensate a dedicated staffer or two to work the Link table the duration of the season. 

Speaking from his personal experience both with the Uptown Farmers Market and the forthcoming Chicago Market food cooperative where he sits on the board, Ruffi said he’s found that making a specific ask, one rooted in community benefit, usually pays dividends. “If two people could commit to being there for two hours, now we have the Link table covered…and by doing this, we’re helping our neighbors in this community be able to shop here, enjoy this, spend more, and eat healthier,” he says. “Most people are terrified of putting an ask out there,” he said, “you’d be surprised how often people want to do things, especially at farmer’s markets.” 

Ruffi offers assurances that Link Up staff provide trainings and visit Chicago area program participants on a weekly basis to get feedback and troubleshoot any issues that arise. He and his fellow staffers want every market that can participate to do so and Link Up is there to support markets as much as possible. “If there’s anything we can do to help, please ask. The forms may look daunting, they’re not. The equipment sounds a little complex, it’s not. We can help you or we can put you in touch with people who can,” he said. He pointed out that new participants often see the benefits during the first year, even if it feels new or there are some initial hiccups. “It may be hard your first year, but then for years after you’ll be able to do this with ease,” Ruffi said. 

This will be the fourth year that Forty Acres Fresh Market will be participating in the Link Match program, Abunaw estimated that around a third of Forty Acres’ sales at the Austin Town Hall Farmers Market are made with Link or Link Match. However, Link and Link Match represent a much, much smaller slice of their grocery delivery service which is available citywide and into the western suburbs year-round. 

“Did I mention that we accept LINK for home delivery and we Link Match?” Abunaw says for the fourth or fifth time to emphasize how challenging it is to let people know about the benefit.

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Link Match Eligible Sites

61st Street Farmers Market
6100 S. Blackstone Ave. Chicago IL 60637
Saturday, 9AM–2PM
Feb 10 | Mar 9 | Apr 13

Farm on Ogden
3555 W Ogden Ave, Chicago, IL 60622
Wednesday–Saturday, 11AM–5PM

Fresh Moves Mobile Market
Urban Growers Collective, Chicago IL
See the website for detailed times and locations

Forty Acres Fresh Market
Delivery and Subscription service in Chicago, IL
Deliveries made on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays dependent on zip code

Garfield Park Neighborhood Market
Farmers Market: 135 N. Kedzie, Chicago, IL 60612
2nd Saturday, 10AM–2PM
Feb 10 | Apr 13 | May 11

Green City Market – Avondale
3031 N Rockwell St., Chicago IL 60618
Saturday, 8AM–1PM
Dec 3–Mar 23 (*Closed on December 23 and 30)

Plant Chicago Firehouse Market
4459 S Marshfield Ave, Chicago, IL 60609
Fridays and Saturdays, 11AM–5PM

Plant Chicago Indoor Market
4459 S Marshfield Ave, Chicago, IL 60609
3rd Saturday of the month, 11AM–3PM
Feb 17, Mar 16, Apr 20

Star Farm – Store Front
5254 S Ashland Ave., Chicago, IL 60609
Wednesdays, 4PM–7PM

Urban Canopy
Check their website for the next season sign-ups.

There are nine Chicago area grocery stores that participate in Link Match.

Cermak Produce [$5]
1711 W Cermak Rd, Chicago, IL 60608
Monday-Sunday, 7am–9pm

Dill Pickle Food Co-op [$10]
2746 N Milwaukee, Chicago, IL 60647
Monday–Sunday, 8am–9pm

Go Green Community Fresh Market [$5]
1207 W 63rd. St, Chicago, IL 60636
Monday–Friday, 8am–7pm
Saturday –Sunday, 10am–6pm

Mi Mexico [$5]
2601 W 59th St Chicago, IL 60629
Monday–Sunday, 7am–9pm

Morgan Mini Mart [$5]
6600 S Morgan St, Chicago, IL 60621
Monday–Sunday, 9am–7pm

One Stop Food [$5]
4301 S. Lake Park Ave, Chicago, IL 60653
Monday–Sunday 8am–8pm

Sugar Beet Food Store Co-op [$10]
812 Madison, Oak Park, IL 60302
Monday–Sunday, 8am–8pm

Jewel-Osco – Chicago [$5]
7530 Stony Island, Chicago, IL 60649
Monday–Sunday, 7am–10pm

Jewel-Osco – Chicago [$5]
443 E. 34th Street, Chicago, IL 60616
Monday–Sunday, 7am–10pm

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Joe Engleman is a Chicago-based writer and urban planner.

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