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Economic Stimulus Starts in Your Kitchen

By JIM SLAMA
   There is a lot of hope these days about revitalizing the economy by creating green jobs. The recently passed Obama stimulus package includes tens of billions of dollars for worthy industries such as renewable energy and high-speed rail. Over the next decade it’s likely that both of these sectors will bloom through significant levels of public and private investment.
   Closer to home, we have an opportunity to be part of our very own green economic development package. It starts in your kitchen.
   The Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force recently released the report Local Food, Farms, and Jobs: Growing the Illinois Economy. It documents that more than $48 billion of food is consumed in the state annually, and that more than 95 percent of it comes from California, Mexico, China and other faraway places. The task force set a goal to grow 20 percent of this food in Illinois by 2030. Doing so will create $10 billion in new sales for Illinois food producers and tens of thousands of new jobs. It will also create tremendous economic revitalization in all corners of the state.
   So how is this going to work? First, we encourage people to actively seek out local food from family farmers and food producers. Fortunately this is getting easier. Farmers markets are popping up all over Illinois. It’s estimated there will be more than 250 farmers markets for the 2009 market season. That’s up from 97 markets in 1999.
 
“Consumers benefit from the availability of nutritious, locally-grown food,” says Tom Jennings, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “The communities that sponsor farmers markets benefit from increased tourism, and the state benefits from the jobs that are supported as demand grows for our food products.”
   Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is another way for families to access local food. In these programs, farmers pre-sell a portion of their crop. Customers purchase a share of the farm and in exchange receive a box of just-picked produce each week during the growing season. The farm drops the CSA box off at a designated drop-off spot and may also provide a newsletter featuring info on the veggies, recipes and news of the farm. Many CSA’s even give members the opportunity to tour the farm or work on it if arranged in advance. More diverse options for CSA’s are also available as some farms now offer fruit, flowers and meat (For a list of CSA’s serving Chicago go to www.FamilyFarmed.org).
   One of the goals of the task force is also to develop systems to give people access to local food wherever they buy it—including supermarkets, restaurants and institutions. Building that capacity will be a long-term process.
   “There are many impediments for restaurants to actively purchase Illinois grown products,” says Sheila O’Grady, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association. “The biggest issue is that most locally grown products are not carried by large distributors that serve restaurants. Without ease of purchasing, it is difficult for many of our members to purchase local food. Cost is another issue. In some cases the prices charged by local growers is beyond the budget of some restaurants. When you consider the fact that people will spend $18.3 billion in Illinois restaurants this year—this is a huge market to supply food and drink for. We would be very supportive of efforts by the state of Illinois to make local food and drink more available to our members.”
   The task force report creates a blueprint for Illinois farmers, policymakers and entrepreneurs to build local food systems. First and foremost on the list of things to do is to grow more farmers.
   “The demand for local food is tremendous, and we hope that Illinois producers will step up to meet it,” says Wes Jarrell, chair of the Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force. He also produces fruit and goat cheese on his farm near Champaign. “We have set a goal to have 5,000 new local food farmers in Illinois by 2020.”
   State Representative Julie Hamos has recently introduced legislation to support the recommendations of the task force, House Bill 3990.
   For more information and to read the report, go to www.foodfarmsjobs.org.

Published: April 04, 2009
Issue: 2009 Spring Green Issue