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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009 03:35 am

On the food front lines

Hoop houses are unheated greenhouses that utilize the sun to greatly increase the length of the Midwest growing season.

Here is a sampling of organizations in Illinois supporting the alternative foods movement, and one in neighboring Wisconsin.

The Frontera Farm Foundation, [www.rickbayless.com/foundation]. Reputedly chef/owner Rick Bayless’ restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, are Barack Obama’s favorite Chicago restaurants. Bayless says that for small farmers trying to make a go of growing and raising food sustainably, often it just takes a small grant of $10,000 to $12,000 to “push them over the edge” into profitability by allowing them to purchase things such as a refrigerated truck or build a hoop-house (see photo above). The Frontera Foundation has been giving those grants since 2003. It’s a win-win situation; the farmers get what they need to be viable, and the restaurants get the freshest, best local foods.

The Illinois Stewardship Alliance, [www.illinoisstewardshipalliance.org]. This organization, headquartered in Rochester, has been around for 34 years. Though it’s always supported family farms, its mission has evolved over time from fighting against big agriculture and CAFOs to working for sustainable, local food systems. Their motto is “Buy Fresh, Buy Local.” ISA conducts, often in conjunction with Slow Food Springfield, farm tours and events such as “Meet Your Local Producer,” lobbies the state legislature for family farms, conservation and local food policies, and hosts “local food” restaurant dinners. ISA director Lindsay Record is especially excited about a new partnership with the local Sysco division. Sysco will act as broker between local farmers and restaurants and other institutions. The farms remain independent. Buyers can go online to make purchases, and Sysco will make the deliveries. It’s an innovative solution to distribution challenges facing local producers.

Wes Jarrell heads the Illinois Local and Organic Farm and Food Task Force, [www.agr.state.il.us/marketing/Mkt_ILOFFTaskForce.html], which also lobbies state government for changes in food and farming policy. Jarrell, a soil science professor at UIUC, has seen students’ interest in sustainable agriculture “really grow.” He’s helped students put together a Farm Sustainability Calculator that’s “spot on.” He has worked with Lake Land Community College in Mattoon to create an Alternative Agriculture Production Program. Such education is needed to create a new generation of farmers who will work with the land rather than the “driving and spraying” farming practiced widely now.

The Fondy Farmer’s Market, [www.fondymarket.org], in inner-city Milwaukee, was begun to provide a source for fresh produce in an area where there were only convenience stores. But Fondy Market has become much more than a place to buy local fruits and vegetables. “Community happens over food,” says its director, Young Kim. Kim encourages inner-city residents to rediscover recipes they already have. Fondy Market sponsors cooking clubs for four–six families that meet to make and share a meal. Single moms meet in church kitchens to prepare a week’s worth of nutritious meals for themselves and their children. Fondy sponsors a 12-week cooking curriculum in middle schools. Thanks to programs like the Fondy Farmer’s Market, as Kim says, “Awareness of where our food comes from is permeating all income levels.” —Julianne Glatz

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