Link Up Illinois began in 2011 as an effort to build on the success of the LINK acceptance program at Illinois farmers markets and to increase access to fresh, healthy food.

The program allows LINK card holders who spend $25 at farmers markets to receive a matching $25 that can be spent on market fruit and vegetables.

“It’s an opportunity to double the value of a LINK card swipe,” said Janie Maxwell, executive director of the Illinois Farmers Market Association. “And it does truly expand consumers’ ability to purchase fresh produce.”

At least 775 farms directly benefit from Link Match, and as of the 2022 market season 86 different farmers markets and farm stands spread across the state participate in the program.

Maxwell said the program offers obvious benefits to farmers — it can increase their sales and incentivize more people to visit a market. There are also advantages for entire markets, which can use the LINK acceptance and match programs to attract individual vendors to sell with them.

Markets apply for funds before each market season, and can continuously apply for more if they run out. A majority of the award, 80%, must be used to fund the actual vouchers or match used by LINK customers while the remaining 20% can be used for implementation costs, like staffing and promotion.

The funds are distributed by the Experimental Station, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that oversees other food access programs and serves as an incubator for small businesses.

Link Up Illinois has received millions of dollars from federal and state appropriators, with the Illinois General Assembly in 2021 allocating $1 million to the Healthy Local Food Incentives Fund for FY 2022 and FY 2023. That support has certainly helped.

Markets and farmers participating in the program saw a total of $639,691 in LINK sales and redeemed matching dollars in 2019. Last year, they collected a total of $2.243 million.

That extra $496,952 spent on fruits and vegetables translates to $894,514 in total economic impact, according to the Experimental Station’s 2021 Increasing Food Access Report.

“We’ve heard a lot of success stories from farmers who see a significant increase in their produce sales,” Maxwell said of the Link Up Illinois program.

“It’s not only a great economic opportunity for their business, but also for the community,” Maxwell said. “And for food access, making sure everybody has access to fresh, healthy food — that’s not a given across the state.”