When we think of the food we eat, we don’t often think of it as fuel in our economic engine. Although the vast majority of Illinois (about 75%) is covered in farming operations, we see corn and soybeans – not the items we use to cook dinner. But if we have nutrient rich farmland and a captive audience willing to pay a premium for locally sourced, organic products- what are we missing here?
On July 14th, Brittany Brown, Rural Economic Development Coordinator, attended the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, Know Your Future conference put on by the USDA and Illinois Farm Bureau in Chicago, IL. The focus of the event was centered on the movement of small, organic farm operations that provide fresh food to families within their region. Even the ‘giants’ of agriculture see this as the way the farming industry is moving. Studies show that the millennial generation consistently prove that they will pay a premium for local, organic food and by 2030 millennials will outnumber baby boomers by 22 million.
However, even with those staggering facts, there are still barriers in place that keep us from growing and selling the food we eat at a rate that meets our local demand. Of all of the food eaten in Illinois, only about 4% is grown here. There is policy that incentivizes the production of corn and soybeans and in order to make that work as a business model, the farms must be very large in size (100+ acres). Often there is a lack of education of buyers purchasing organic food – they do not understand the reasoning for a higher cost and/or they expect every tomato to be uniform and beautiful. If you’ve ever grown your own vegetables, you know the ugly ones taste just as great. The large quantity food purchasers in our region, such as hospitals and other employers with cafeterias, enter in to agreements with companies for food with buying power and remove the context of how that effects a local economy. The largest barrier though is that even when the products are desired, we simply do not have the growers that can dependably meet demand.
For all of the challenges we face with growing our own food, now is the time to pay attention to this movement and get involved because reality is- it is here and it is growing! The State of Illinois passed a law that any state-owned or state-funded entity that purchases large quantities of food must source at least 10-20% of that product locally by 2020. There are federal incentives in place right now that aim to reduce our food waste production through tax incentives. But even better, you do not have to go it alone to get involved right here in Greater Peoria.
The Regional Fresh Food Council is made up of community leaders that are truly experts in food production- from health to business to policy- and they cover the same five counties as the Greater Peoria EDC. They also operate a fantastic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program through their Fresh Food Hub that will bring the best fresh foods to you throughout the growing season. Proceeds of the CSA are used to subsidize a mobile fresh food van that provides access in food desert areas where it is nearly impossible for families to make healthy food choices.
So how does all of this apply to you? Well, first you should consider whether you are the kind of entrepreneur that wants to get in to the food movement now while the time is right. As a consumer, take the time to learn about the food you put on your table and embrace the ugly tomatoes. Consider signing up for a CSA; the Fresh Food Hub will be circulating their enrollment forms for 2017 in September. Get in touch with PrairiErth if you are looking for a great summer gig as an apprentice or a farmhand where you will ‘grow’ your understanding of food and business. Consider an at home composter to reduce the effects of your food waste in our landfills. But most importantly, get involved! Whether as a business venture, a consumer, or a job seeker- there is a place for you at the food table.