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Thursday, March 10, 2011 06:23 am

Task force leads the way to local food

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The Illinois Stewardship Alliance’s “Farm-to-School” programs include gardening on school property.

“ ‘Eating is an agricultural act,’ as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it.” From The Ominivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

The report took more than a year to complete. It took countless hours to compile and produce. Some of those hours came from people paid for their efforts, but many were also from volunteers who are passionate about the issues involved.

The Springfield Area Local Food Task Force Report was recently released by the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. The ISA is a 36-year-old statewide organization, though these days it focuses most of its efforts in the greater Springfield area and what’s defined as the Sangamon Region, which comprises Cass, Christian, Logan, Macon, Macoupin, Menard, Montgomery, Morgan and Sangamon counties. Founded in 1974 as the Illinois South Project to oppose unrestricted strip mining, the organization changed its name and began focusing on promoting Illinois family farms and local and healthy food systems after the organization’s initial goals were largely implemented.

The ISA defines its mission as promoting “environmentally sustainable, economically viable, socially just food systems through policy development, advocacy and education.” It envisions “a system where soils are treated as a precious resource, local food producers earn a fair living wage, local food instruction is integrated into all levels of education, infrastructure is rebuilt to accommodate local food systems and good food is available to all.”

What is a local food system? It’s one “…in which production, processing, distribution, and waste management have been integrated on a local or regional basis in order to support local and regional economies, community health, and ecological sustainability… in a comprehensive manner that includes support from local and regional [and federal, I would add] regulatory institutions and associated organizations.”

That’s a huge agenda, one that requires rethinking and retooling much of how central Illinois folks get and eat their food. (In case you’re thinking that a “socially just food system” is code for some sort of wacko socialist government overreach, to those promoting local food systems it merely means trying to find ways to make fresh, local and healthy food accessible and affordable to all, including low-income families.)

Some of the report’s information wasn’t new to me: that food in chain groceries travels an average of 1,500 miles before it’s purchased; that as a percent of personal income, Americans’ food is cheaper by far than it’s ever been; and that the reasons for that are largely because industrial agriculture and its distribution evolved depending on cheap fuel and a Byzantine system of government subsidies.

What I’d not known before – what was truly shocking – were the local numbers involved. For those statistics, the ISA turned to Ken Meter, a nationally renowned economist who focuses on local food and sustainability. Meter has made economic analyses of local food and farm economies in more than 45 regions in 20 American states.

Getting children to grow carrots can help in the battle against obesity.
His findings? The 7,281 farms in the Sangamon Region make a profit of $3 million from commodities, mostly corn, soybeans and livestock. But they pay $636 million to external suppliers of fuel, seed, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, etc.. That means that each year, the Sangamon Region suffers a deficit of $633 million dollars, exporting that money from our local economy. An average farm earns less than $22,000 a year. In order to survive, one or more members of farm families often must find outside work to survive. According to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, 89 percent of family farm income comes from off-farm sources.

And what about the money spent in mega-groceries, and national chain restaurants? You can bet that little of that profit stays in the community, either, though that wasn’t covered in the study.

Here’s the good news: If Sangamon Region consumers bought just 15 percent of their food for home use from regional farmers, it would add $100 million dollars in new agricultural income to the area. That’s 33 times the net average yearly gain that farmers earn from selling what have become the area’s traditional commodities.

That might not sound like a big deal. Fifteen percent doesn’t seem like much; how hard could that be to achieve? But as the industrial/corporate models of food production and distribution increasingly enveloped America’s food systems, local food producers were increasingly shut out of those systems. Mega-groceries weren’t set up to buy local produce, their goods are controlled and distributed by distant corporate headquarters. Government regulations became geared to the needs and production methods of corporate agriculture and food processors, not least because of the army of lobbyists they hired to influence policy. Small local farmers and food producers couldn’t afford that kind of influence; most couldn’t survive the resultant policies.

A report is just a report. No matter how well-researched, fascinating and/or alarming the contents, it’s just words on paper. The acronym symphony that is the ISA’s SALFTF Report resonates with good intentions. It contains sections defining goals and intentions, barriers to developing a local food system, infrastructure concerns, and lists of willing and able participants, organizations, programs and initiatives. Some are already in place and in play; others waiting for information and guidelines to get going.

But everyone involved in the Springfield Area Local Foods Task Force Report knows that it takes more than words to effect change; energy and effort are required, as well as hard-headed realism. As ISA executive director Lindsay Record said at a recent meeting, “We want to get together behind what’s practical and achievable, what we can do to bring people together.”

In other words, the SALFTF Report is not an end, but a beginning: something to be used as a stepping-stone to a better future for the Sangamon Region’s environment as well as its inhabitants.

One area with great potential, and one that the ISA will be focusing much of its attention on in the near future, is that of Farm-to-School Programs. A wide-ranging, far-reaching topic that encompasses procurement (incorporating more locally grown and produced foods in school lunch programs) as well as gardening on school property and implementing food and farm-based (including cooking) curriculums in classrooms.

It’s one that’s supported by other organizations, including Illinois Department of Agriculture Community Gardens, Illinois Extension Master Gardeners, Springfield Urban League, The GenH (Generation Healthy) Coalition, which seeks to prevent and treat childhood obesity through physical education, healthy food choices, and improved nutrition in local schools, LLCC, and the CATCH program, a Sangamon County initiative “designed to promote healthy lifestyle choices by children and their families as a way to prevent cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.”

The next big event planned by the Springfield Area Local Foods Task Force is a Farm-To-School Summit for the fall. The Task Force envisions a combination of educational and fun events for students and families, as well as informational forums for local teachers, farmers, suppliers and anyone involved in producing and consuming food in the Sangamon Region. Which, if you think about it, involves us all.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

To find out more about the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, get involved, or obtain a copy of the report, visit their website, www.ilstewards.org, or call 217-528-1563. 

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