In an effort to encourage low-income seniors to eat healthier, a federally funded program is helping lower the cost of produce at area farmers markets.
Any senior older than age 60 who falls below 185 percent of the federal poverty level is eligible to receive $21 worth of coupons good at seven metro-east farmer's markets.
"It's just giving everyone the chance to eat healthy," explained Ashley Duffie, of the Area Agency on Aging.
Seniors who meet the income guidelines (those who earn about $21,500 per individual or $29,000 per couple) can sign up at one of the farmers' markets. Names are kept on a list, but the honor system is in play.
"If they need it that bad, then let them have it," Duffie said.
The coupon booklets are available at: Old Towne Market in Belleville; Alton Marketplace Association; Carlyle Courthouse Square Farmers' Market; Nashville Farmers' Market; Swansea Farmers' Market; East Side Health District; and Highland Farmers' Market.
Seniors can visit those markets, fill out information and receive the coupon booklets on the spot.
The coupons, in $3 increments, can be used to purchase fresh produce and honey, according to Burt Wikgren, the market master for the Old Towne Market on Saturday mornings in downtown Belleville.
At the Belleville market, there are five or six vendors who sell produce and accept the coupons. The vendors are able to deposit the coupons at their bank.
"It works just like a check," Wikgren said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program. The purpose is to provide fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs from farmers' markets to seniors at nutritional risk. It also helps to increase sales at local farmer's markets, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services.
The federal program is administered by state agencies, such as the Illinois Department of Human Services or Agency on Aging.
About 1,250 booklets have been given out in the metro-east since the program began this summer on July 1. There is a limit of one booklet per person.
The program is in its third year but continues to grow in popularity.
"The numbers continue to go up," Duffie said. "In areas like East St. Louis and Cahokia and Belleville, they just seem to fly. People tell each other about it."
Seniors also can pick up coupons by visiting the Area Agency on Aging of Southwestern Illinois, 2365 Country Road in Belleville. For questions about the program, call Duffie at 618-222-2561.
"People seem to really love it, and that's why we continue on with it," Duffie said.
Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2460.