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Can a Farm State Feed Itself?

By Brooke Jarvis | yes! magazine

A farm state tired of depending on imports, Illinois looks to local food.
Illinois in textIn MacClean County, Illinois, a field of corn awaits harvest. Photo by tlindenbaum.

Illinois, home to 76,000 farms and more than 950 food manufacturing companies, is a solidly agricultural state in the heart of America’s bread basket. Fully 80 percent of it is farmland. But, of all the food eaten in Illinois, only four percent is actually grown there.

Vast quantities of food are exported to other states and nations, while similarly vast quantities are brought in to feed Illinois’ citizens.  It’s a costly arrangement that leaves too many people without enough access to healthy fruits and vegetables. 

A new bill, recently signed by Governor Patrick Quinn, will make it easier for farmers to sell their harvests within Illinois instead of shipping them out of state.  But first, the state had to figure out what had been making it so hard.

The Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Act of 2009 draws on the recommendations of a 32-member task force asked to determine Illinois’ potential for local food consumption. Illinois, the group found, has lots of local food and lots of people willing to eat it. What’s been missing is a way to connect them on a large scale.

The state spends tens of billions of dollars on imported food, much of which already is or could be grown in state, and exports its own farm produce. Local food systems developed at the community level have flourished—in the last decade, the number of farmers’ markets in Illinois has grown from 97 to 270, while the number of community-supported agriculture organizations, groups that sell shares of farm harvests directly to consumers, has more than quadrupled. But large consumers—like hospitals, museums, restaurants, grocery stores, corporate kitchens, schools, and universities—have found it difficult to procure local food in the quantities they need. And, many inner-city and rural communities in Illinois lack access to grocery stores, markets, or other sources of fresh, healthy foods.

“Illinois’ predominant farm and food system,” the task force found, “is designed to serve distant markets, not link farm production with in-state markets.”

 The new bill represents the state government’s commitment to restructuring the food system so that it promotes local consumption instead of hindering it. “It encourages Illinois farmers to respond directly to consumers’ demand for fresh, tasty, locally produced foods and shows how to do it,” says task force chairman Wes Jarrell, a farmer and professor of sustainable agriculture.

Specifically, the legislation sets up a grown-in-Illinois label and certification program, directs state agencies to purchase at least 20 percent of their food locally by 2020, and allows them to pay premium prices for local food. One particular goal is to increase the amount of local food served in public schools.

The law also establishes a new agency that will encourage farmers to grow food for local markets and will help build the statewide distribution networks needed to get their fresh produce to the people who want to eat it.

“I believe economic development begins in the kitchen,” says Illinois Agriculture Director Tom Jennings. “There is no question we can produce locally grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. We also have the processing and packaging capabilities right here in our own backyard. Setting up a distribution system that moves items at reasonable cost from tree or vine to the table is the big challenge, and this legislation is an important step toward realizing that goal.”

The state expects that increasing local food sales will bring a $30 billion boost to its economy. Distributing and selling a potato or soybean in-state keeps the money there, helping expand local commerce and ultimately creating new jobs and business opportunities, a phenomenon known as the local multiplier effect. “As Illinoisans meet the increased demand for fresh food grown within the state, every community’s economy will see the benefits,” says state representative Julie Hamos, who sponsored the bill in the Illinois House. “New jobs will be created as the system to process and transport the food to local markets is developed.” She also expects rural communities to grow as job prospects in agricultural areas improve. 

“The fact that all but a tiny percentage of the fruits, vegetables, and meats that Illinoisans eat are produced in other states or countries is an astonishing imbalance,” says state senator Jacqueline Collins, who was a cosponsor of the bill. But, she added, the state now has “an enormous opportunity” to develop a more sensible, more local food economy. 

Illinois' problem is hardly unique—the food Americans eat has traveled an average 1500 miles to reach our plates—but the state's agricultural production makes its lack of local distribution particularly striking. “The fact that all but a tiny percentage of the fruits, vegetables, and meats that Illinoisans eat are produced in other states or countries is an astonishing imbalance,” said state senator Jacqueline Collins, a co-sponsor of the bill. But, she added, the state now has “an enormous opportunity” to develop a more sensible, more local food economy.

Brooke JarvisBrooke Jarvis wrote this article as part of YES! Magazine's ongoing coverage of sustainable food systems.  Brooke is YES! Magazine's web editor.

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