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Customers that buy from Meyer Produce’s colorful arrangement of fruits and vegetables every Tuesday and Saturday are feeding a family.

Molly and Ben Oberg are going on their fourth season running Meyer Produce, having bought the Villa Grove business in 2016. Produce sales — fresh from their 25-acre farm — are their sole source of income.

The Obergs began selling at Tuesday’s Champaign Farmers’ Market because they always had extra fruit after Urbana’s Market at the Square on Saturday mornings. The connections they made keep them coming back.

“Champaign’s market is a small portion of our income, probably 18 percent,” Molly said. “I love the other vendors, it’s like a family. We’re really close-knit. We’ve had dinner with some of them.”

The central Illinois farmers’ market scene is filled with local producers looking to connect their communities more closely with the food they consume.

Wes Hornback of Sunset Acres Beef Sales talks with buyers about how he raises his cattle during every purchase.

“Selling in C-U is more about helping consumers relate back to the farming industry. It’s a little bit about making money, more about the community in general and making sure they have a good, safe food supply and they know where it’s coming from,” he said.

Market logistics

Urbana and Champaign’s markets vary in size, time and scope. Champaign’s market hosts around a dozen stations at a time, while Urbana cycles through over 150 individual vendors.

According to market manager Rey Dalitto, the Champaign Farmers’ Market averages 600 attendees and $1,200 in sales each Tuesday. Urbana’s Market at the Square sees about 4,000 weekly visitors, said director Bryan Heaton.

Both markets run from May to October rain or shine.

The primary salespeople at each market are local growers and “value-added” vendors, selling food staples and basic altered products like jam or bread, respectively. Both host food trucks.

Unlike Champaign, Urbana’s farmers’ market features a variety of arts and crafts stations and community group booths.

“We give preference to fruit and vegetable growers over arts and crafts people,” said Heaton. “We want people who are making original, unique art in the local sphere.”

Neither market is run for profit. The Champaign market is helmed by nonprofit The Land Connection, an organization focused on restorative farming techniques and food education. The city of Urbana administers Market at the Square.

Link card programs

Customers on food stamps can use their Link cards to buy food essentials at both markets, with a bevy of incentive programs.

Heaton said 35 to 60 Urbana customers use benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program every Saturday. According to its 2016 annual report, Market at the Square distributed $21,500 in SNAP dollars during the season. At either farmers’ market, Link card users double their spending power; Urbana and Champaign’s markets match spending amounts up to $20 in additional fruit and vegetable vouchers.

Champaign’s market has “Triple Link Tuesdays” on the second week of each month, when $20 becomes $60 to spend on produce.

On the last Tuesday of the month, Link card customers receive an additional $10 with any market purchase.

“The end-of-the month bonus people really enjoy,” said Eric Zarnesky, Champaign market assistant manager. “The extra $10 might be just enough to get them through the week.”

Grants from organizations like Farm Credit and Link Up Illinois drive Urbana’s SNAP incentive program. Illinois Charitable Trust, National Institute of Food and Agriculture and United Natural Foods Inc. all pitch in for the Champaign matching program, while United Way funds the end-of-month bonuses.

Dalitto said purchases rise significantly on triple-match days, with sales totaling close to $2,000. Despite farmer’ markets’ successes with SNAP, there is still work to be done getting the word out to families that need it.

“There’s not a single market day where people don’t come up and find out about the benefits. They’re taken aback they can spend $40 or $60 instead of the $20 they came with,” Dalitto said.

Zarnesky said the program helps combat malnutrition in lower-income communities, though most beneficiaries are just happy to put healthy food on the table.

“Most people say if this SNAP program wasn’t here, they’d be struggling. For them, it’s more of a relief than a gratitude,” he said.

Customer feedback

Every farmers’ market outing sees a mix of regulars and new faces looking for fresh food and a chance to connect with the community.

Rantoul residents Brandy Ashby and Candace Johnson raved about their farmers’ market experience on Tuesday.

“We saw the special with the Link card, we thought it was cool how they tripled what we could buy,” Ashby said. “I like how it’s fresh, everything’s homegrown, and I like how we’re helping out farmers.”

Neither had been to a farmers’ market in years.

“It’s nice to see the people who’ve actually grown the products, conversing with them,” Johnson added.

Kirsten Gilmore is a regular at the Champaign market, having gone to the Tuesday setup for two years now. Gilmore stopped by Meyer Produce to purchase some blueberries for her baby.

“It’s less overwhelming than the Urbana farmers’ market. I can take my child and get around a lot easier.”

Gilmore is an artist. She snaps photos of vibrant vendor booths to paint later.

“The colorful arrays of fruits and vegetables are great subjects,” she said.

Vendor process

Both farmers’ markets have a quick application process for aspiring vendors.

Growers must have their food produced in Illinois and must have licensing through the health department. For Champaign’s market, it must be produced within 150 miles of C-U.

After potential vendors fill out online applications, both markets have a manager inspect their farm before clearance.

C-U vendors pay a $15 application fee. Champaign producers pay $18 for each day they spend at the market, while Urbana administers a $25 weekend fee.

Closing notes

Managers at the Champaign and Urbana farmers’ markets highlight the specialties of each location.

“It’s a really good economic deal for Urbana vendors: They’ve got a huge audience. Not too many places can guarantee 4,000 people will come past your storefront in a weekend,” Heaton said.

Champaign’s robust SNAP program sets it apart, even if Urbana’s marketplace dwarfs it.

“Vendors are here to make money, but they’re also here because this market is where they can really make a difference,” Dalitto said.

Both speak to the unique conversation opportunities that farmers’ markets provide, bridging the producer-consumer gap.

“There’s a personal connection there, the whole operation is family-oriented. For the customers, it makes them feel good they can support local farmers and artists,” Heaton said.

Perhaps the most powerful draw to farmers’ markets starts at the taste buds.

“Here you can learn what food is supposed to taste like. Most of us have forgotten,” Dalitto said. “Food at the grocery store might’ve been picked over a week ago. Molly’s tomatoes were picked yesterday.”