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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

As Farmers Markets Go Online, Those Using SNAP Benefits Are Left Behind

"Everybody just wishes there was an online platform for [using public assistance], but it doesn’t yet exist unfortunately," 61st Street Farmers Market manager Wendy Zeldin said.

61st Street Farmers Market
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WOODLAWN — Though this month’s 61st Street Farmers Market was canceled, organizers created an online marketplace for its vendors to provide pickup and delivery options.

But SNAP benefits can’t be used to buy from the virtual market, so manager Wendy Zeldin said she and others in Chicago’s farmers market community hope for policy changes in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

This month’s market was scheduled for April 11 but canceled to protect the health of all involved. In response, 16 vendors — offering everything from fresh produce and meats to bean pies and mushroom cultivation kits — have joined an online marketplace.

The shift to a virtual market was necessary, but it hasn’t been easy on vendors, Zeldin said. The marketplace brings all the vendors together, but from there, they must handle transactions themselves.

Vendors must also handle pickup and delivery, though some have chosen to offer pickups outside the market’s home base of the Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave.

“It has been an interesting pivot,” Zeldin said. “Figuring out how to use the technology to maintain these sites has been a real struggle for a lot of the community.”

The biggest challenge for market organizers has been figuring out how those on public assistance can participate, she said.

The market usually matches SNAP benefits for eligible purchases up to $25, doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables someone could buy. But with the pandemic and the shift to online pickup and delivery services, that isn’t possible.

A bill to allow SNAP benefits to be used online passed the state house in March. Even if it’s passed in Illinois, such a move would require federal approval.

Of the seven states to roll out online SNAP benefits, none allow their use at farmers markets. Only Amazon, Walmart and two regional grocery chains in Alabama and New York have been approved for online purchasing to date.

“Everybody just wishes there was an online platform for it, but it doesn’t yet exist unfortunately,” Zeldin said. “It stinks to rely on … the current policy that’s been set up, and not be able to change that.”

Market managers across Chicago are “brainstorming ways to still provide access” for those on public assistance, she said.

Organizers and vendors are anxiously awaiting the chance to “get back out on the street” and continue the in-person markets, Zeldin said. In the meantime, she encouraged those who can to make supporting local farmers and food producers a priority.

“A food scarcity mentality is unfortunately on the minds of many,” Zeldin said. “We want people to remember there is still good, organically grown local produce available.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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