LINK cards expand to Farmer’s Markets

By Tara Kulash

The Friday Night Fair will soon be able to accept LINK cards, thanks to a federal grant.

The Illinois LINK card provides lower income families and the unemployed with money for food purchases. The card works similarly to a debit card and an individual can apply online to get the card.

Lt. Governor Sheila Simon announced Friday that 41 farmers’ markets in Illinois will receive a federal grant of $1,200 and a wireless Link card machine, with Carbondale Main Street’s Friday Night Fair on the list.


The university will also do a study of the program by using monthly sales data and market surveys to measure the impact on overall sales at farmers’ markets, according to a press release. The findings will be released by the end of 2013 or early 2014.

The Friday Night Fair is every Friday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Town Square Pavillion in Carbondale, and offers food vendors, crafts, live music and more.

Meghan Cole, executive director of Carbondale Main Street, said while she only applied for the grant a month ago, it had been in the talks for awhile.

“This was a need and something that could really help not only the fair but a lot of the community,” she said.

Cole said the bus system doesn’t run during the summer, so low-income families don’t always have transportation to the farmers’ market. Those families can get their produce at the Friday Night Fair on Link cards now, as five farmers bring their produce to the fair every week.

The cards can be used on any kind of food item, even at the hot dog cart, she said, so the grant will be helping the fair’s vendors as well.

Cole said she doesn’t think the machine will be put to use until next year because there are still a lot of steps to go through — such as a training session she must attend in August — and this year’s last fair is Sept. 21.

The machine, which is funded by and named after the Illinois Electronic Benefits Transfer Wireless Project, can be kept by the farmers’ markets after Sept. 2013, but at that point the markets must absorb the wireless services.

Cole said she expects the fee to be small and easily absorbed by Carbondale Main Street.

While the Friday Night Fair got the grant, the Carbondale farmers’ market didn’t apply for it.

Ann Stahlheber, market manager for the farmers’ market, said the market’s board discussed the idea of the grant but decided to keep Link access on an individual basis for now, meaning some vendors at the market will carry their own card machines.

Stahlheber said the decision was made because the farmers’ market does not have any outside funding and would not be able to hire someone to work the machine.

She said the vendors are still open to the idea of getting a machine for the market in the future, though.

Jenna Tromburg, a 2012 SIU alumna, said she has had a LINK card for more than a year.

Tromburg found out about the card through friends who had it and said she usually receives about $135 a month for groceries.

She said she thinks the machine will be beneficial at the Friday Night Fair, but isn’t sure she would use it at the farmers’ market.

“I always wanted to go, but the hours were early in the morning and I was a college student so I typically slept in or was doing something else,” she said.

Tromburg said having a LINK card machine at the farmers’ market might have encouraged her to visit the market, though.

In order to be eligible for a LINK card machine, markets must have certification to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, more commonly known as food stamps, through the USDA Food and Nutrition service.

The funding comes from a $4 million project by the USDA to encourage SNAP use nationwide.