February 26, 2023

The Breadth of Economic Development

I love it when my worlds collide and when what I do for a living intersects with my personal interests. Last week I was asked to make a brief presentation at the “Ending Hunger Together” symposium by the Community Foundation of Central Illinois. I was there in my official role as CEO of Greater Peoria EDC to offer my thoughts on why addressing hunger was an important part of the community’s economic development strategy. But I was also doubling as a member of the Foundation’s board of directors, a role I have had the privilege of serving in for the past three years or so. Sitting in a room of amazing advocates, practitioners, and public servants working to improve our community was inspiring.

Ending Hunger Together (EHT) was launched in 2019 to help address food insecurity in our community. The Community Foundation had spent years funding food pantries and other hunger-related programs without feeling like it had moved the needle very much. The same organizations sought the same funding each year, and no one seemed to be working together to get at the root causes. EHT funds can only be granted to initiatives that include two or more partners working together. HEAL Food Systems Partners brings together existing food system programs to increase food access, advance community education, and create agricultural and community development opportunities through this funding. And Peoria Grown is working to provide fresh produce to vulnerable families in our low-income communities. In total, the Community Foundation and its donors have invested over $150,000 in these programs. You can read more here.

So what does addressing hunger have to do with an organization like Greater Peoria EDC that works on things like business attraction, rural broadband expansion, improving connections to the defense industry, and entrepreneurship? Quite simple, actually: A hungry community is an unhealthy community, and an unhealthy community is an unhealthy workforce. For the past few years, we (along with our partners) have been beating the drum that an available and ready workforce is the key to economic growth. Our existing businesses cite workforce shortages as a key constraint to growth. When we are pitching Greater Peoria in the business attraction arena, we are consistently asked to describe and define our workforce. Hunger hinders learning in children which in turn reduces their chances of pursuing solid careers. In adults, hunger can impact work readiness and performance.

Understanding that public health issues are economic development issues, this important issue is reflected in the Big Table CEDS. Our “quality of place” goal outlines this vision: Diverse and inclusive communities where all residents and visitors enjoy active, secure, healthy and fulfilled lives. Fostering and facilitating healthy lifestyle choices for improved health outcomes and individual prosperity is a key strategy within that goal area. The CEDS goes on to specifically list addressing food insecurity and nutrition security as objectives. And at the EHT meeting, another economic issue arose: Though the work often focuses on food “consumers,” there are also economic impacts on food “producers.” Greater Peoria is blessed with some of the most fertile soil in the world, yet we grow very little food consumed in our region. Crop diversification is economic diversification, and encouraging more local foods will have additional benefits beyond healthy eating.

While you might not think of hunger when you think about economic development, the truth is that it is a foundational part of the work. I’d invite you to learn more about this critical issue and find ways you can help address it. Remember, the “together” in Ending Hunger Together includes all of us.