By Cathe Capel and Becky Roach
March is National Nutrition Month and what better time to talk about food — local food.
Knowing where our food comes from can help us choose to eat more fruits and vegetables to have a more healthful diet. But increasing our use of local foods can do so much more than improve our nutrition — it can boost our economy.
At the recent American Planning Association national conference held in Chicago, 10 workshops were devoted to local foods. Topics included providing broad local access to fresh, locally produced foods; developing efficient distribution systems; public health and local foods; and the potential economic impact of producing our food locally — keeping local dollars local.
According to a research project conducted in 2010 by Ken Meter of the Crossroads Center in Minneapolis, if just 15 percent of the food purchased in central Illinois came from local farms, farmers across central Illinois would earn $639 million in new income. Much of that money would remain in the state, increasing many Illinois business incomes.
Last year, the Champaign County Board established a Local Food Policy Council to enhance economic development and strengthen local food systems within the county. The council has been in place for about a year, meeting twice a month to:
— Bring stakeholders together and seek stakeholder advice and expertise.
— Explore funding strategies for local food projects.
— Coordinate and collaborate with existing programs and organizations within Champaign County and regionally.
— Bring new and existing local food programs to the attention of the county board.
— Identify and recommend policy initiatives to the county board that support local food systems in Champaign County.
The council's focus has been on helping Champaign County benefit from local food's potential for economic development.
Local foods bring a tremendous return on investment; yield in dollars per acre is six to seven times that of conventional row-crop agriculture, and local foods can be produced on relatively small acreages with less-than-ideal soils. Champaign County, with some of the best farmland in the world, is a place where row-crop farmers and food farms can peacefully co-exist, produce abundant yields and contribute substantially to the local economy.
Locally produced food is hardly new to the county's current economy. The Urbana Farmers Market is a two-decade success, and Common Ground Food Co-op in Urbana continues to promote and sell locally produced food in their new location in Lincoln Square.
In addition, many local restaurants rely on meats, fruits, cheeses and produce from nearby farms for their menus and as part of their regional identity.
Dining Services at the University of Illinois currently uses all the food it can get from the Student Sustainable Farm. The farm produces a wide range of crops, but it only produces a fraction of what Dining Services needs. The university has committed to meeting the Illinois Climate Action Plan target of purchasing more than 30 percent of its food from sources within 100 miles. Hendrick House, a private residence hall on campus, has also committed to providing local foods in its cafeteria.
Consequently, the need for additional local food producers is huge. An effort between Rantoul and the Champaign County Farm Bureau seeks to make land available for small farmers and to develop a hub for aggregating and distributing local produce.
Local and regional organizations support efforts to increase local food system capacity and the number of farmers producing local food. UI Extension is now providing local food systems and small farm educators to every part of the state, and Extension is training new farmers at three locations in Illinois through their Illinois Beginning Farmers program. In addition to the Rantoul project, the Illinois Farm Bureau has sponsored a series of "Meet the Buyer" forums, bringing together local food producers and businesses interested in purchasing local foods, and helping stakeholders recognize the need for increased production.
Another central Illinois organization, The Land Connection, works with new farmers in their Farm Beginnings program to help them develop a farm business plan and gain access to affordable financing and land.
Local food systems are growing throughout Illinois. For example, there's Stewards of the Land, in Livingston County, run by a group of farmers who consolidate their products and deliver weekly to Chicago area chefs. A food hub is also taking shape in McLean County, where the Edible Economy project is facilitating development of local food production, distribution and processing facilities in 32 central Illinois counties (http://edibleeconomy.org).
County governments are getting involved as well: Kane County, in northern Illinois, is in the process of adding local foods to the 2020, 2030 and 2040 goals in their comprehensive plan for agriculture and farmland preservation. In Boulder, San Francisco and Detroit, promoting land use for local food production is helping to feed the population and revive cities.
If the university, restaurants and other entities within Champaign County set a goal that even 10 percent of the food they used would be grown locally, the economic boom would be exciting to contemplate.
We can all participate in this effort. As one of our objectives, the CCLFP has developed a website with links to the information you need to become part of this project. Visit our site at http://www.champaigncountylocalfood.org for more information. And we welcome your feedback and your presence at our meetings.
Champaign County's Local Food Policy Council
Members: Tod Satterthwaite, chair; Maya Bauer, Cris Henning, Brad Uken, Zac Kennedy, Mel Farrell, James Herriott, Cathe Capel and Becky Roach.
To learn more: http://www.champaigncountylocalfood.org.
Cathe Capel is the owner and operator of 7 Sisters Farm in Sidney. Becky Roach is a registered dietitian and a licensed dietitian/nutritionist, and she's a teaching associate at the University of Illinois.