The Wholesome Food Fund multiplies the impact of SNAP dollars in the local community.
Imagine a program that simultaneously benefits local farmers, residents, students and the environment… all while making the most of your tax dollars. That is precisely what one initiative is doing for many area residents. By doubling the value of SNAP dollars used at the Peoria Riverfront Market, the Wholesome Food Fund is transforming the way enrollees in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp program, purchase their food—and bringing a welcome increase in profits to area farmers.
Creating a Win-Win
Until relatively recently, local farmers markets were unable to process Illinois Link cards, which are used to redeem SNAP benefits, making it nearly impossible for enrollees to purchase fresh, locally-grown produce. Sensing an opportunity, Golda Ewalt, director of the Dietetic Internship Program at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, approached the Peoria Riverfront Market in early 2010, and a partnership was formed. Not only would the market begin to accept SNAP benefits, Ewalt’s dietetic interns would be made available to educate beneficiaries about nutrition, food preparation and how to “get the biggest bang” for their buck.
Though vendors could now process Link cards, the first two market seasons that were open to SNAP enrollees saw limited activity. Then Sharon Gramm, manager of the Peoria Riverfront Market, heard about LINK Up Illinois, a program that works “to increase the affordability and accessibility of nutritious foods sold at Illinois farmers markets for low-income Illinoisans, rebuilding linkages between local agricultural producers and consumers.” With incentives allowing farmers markets statewide to offer “double-value coupons,” LINK Up Illinois awarded the Peoria Riverfront Market a $2,500 grant to match SNAP dollars in the 2012 season. According to Gramm, the response was immediate—they ran out of funds by mid-season. Not only were SNAP enrollees purchasing healthier food, local farmers were seeing a marked increase in sales.
Noting these benefits, Clare Howard, a local journalist who manages the Wholesome Food Fund’s finances, envisioned an expanded program that would not only leverage the impact of SNAP dollars, but consist of contributions raised and managed locally. She approached Mark Roberts, CEO of the Community Foundation of Central Illinois, about creating a fund to do just that. “This was a no-brainer,” Roberts says. “It was a collaborative amongst multiple entities. Both the local farmers and those who are enrolled in SNAP would benefit. It’s a win-win situation.” Soon after gaining approval, the Wholesome Food Fund was formed, and fundraising efforts began immediately.
A Ripple of Impact
In 2012, the Wholesome Food Fund kicked off at the beginning of the market’s summer season, and participation increased rapidly. Howard sings the fund’s praises: “It promotes a healthy diet, which reduces the risk of diabetes and obesity. It also reduces the impact on air, water and soil that is caused by shipping food from non-local sources.” Furthermore, she adds, there’s a clear economic impact: in its first year, the Wholesome Food Fund returned $9,123 in local produce purchases back to the regional economy—and that was just the beginning.
Last year, $17,560 in combined Wholesome Food Fund dollars and SNAP funds were spent at the Peoria Riverfront Market, sending a ripple effect through the local economy. Howard reports that some farmers receive an extra $500 per month as a result of participation in the fund. For Brandi Ferretti of Garden Spot Vegetable Farm in Princeville, the benefits are fairly straightforward: “It helps both us and our customers.” Not to mention, as families are introduced to new vegetables, Ferretti notes they are much more likely to purchase from local farmers in the future. That is no small feat, as SNAP dollars are typically spent at large corporate chains like Walmart and Aldi. With more than 43,000 beneficiaries in the Tri-County area, shifting some of these dollars back to the local economy is a welcome change for many area farmers.
The program also benefits local students, as OSF’s dietetic interns can fulfill their internship requirements by facilitating the health education segment of the fund. And they are making a difference, says Howard. “One of the interns heard a little boy say to his mother, ‘Oh no! This is the last market! Does that mean we have to go back to the grocery store?’”
“Since the program started in 2010, we have seen that incentivizing healthy eating is working,” adds Ewalt. “Each summer, the program grows, and with generous donations to the Wholesome Food Fund, we are impacting food choices in the area.”
And that is one of the more intriguing outcomes of the Wholesome Food Fund. While the “meat and potatoes” diet endures on American plates, SNAP enrollees and their families are now falling in love with kohlrabi, kale and eggplant, and fund organizers credit the educational efforts and cooking demonstrations led by the dietetic interns. Last June, one of them prepared and distributed samples of kohlrabi slaw. “One taste, and mothers snapped up copies of the recipe,” recalls Howard. “Within hours, every farmer at the market had sold out of kohlrabi.” Sharon Gramm observes instances like this every week, adding that the interns take time to help each family come up with plans to prepare the produce they purchase.
These efforts have not gone unrecognized. On January 22, 2013, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis and the City of Peoria issued a proclamation recognizing the fund for its “generosity to people on federal food assistance, for adding new revenue to the Peoria-area economy, and for helping in the fight against community obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other dietary health issues.”
“We were so happy the City of Peoria recognized the importance of these efforts,” says Howard. Unfortunately, LINK Up Illinois was unable to offer the Peoria Riverfront Market a similar grant this year due to a lack of funds. “This is why it’s even more important to keep this Peoria-based fund active and growing,” observes Gramm. Despite this hurdle, fund organizers are excited to introduce more area families to the fresh, locally-grown produce at the Peoria Riverfront Market this summer. iBi
To donate to the Wholesome Food Fund, visit communityfoundationci.org, click on the “Donate Now through Network for Good” icon, and specify that your donation is for the Wholesome Food Fund.