URBANA -- The Great Recession prompted Ann Swanson to rethink her focus.
Formerly a fine-dining chef in the Southeast, the Monticello native found that people had stopped going out to high-end restaurants.
“It was a struggle being able to survive,” Swanson said, adding that she wanted to change her clientele. She wanted to give back to those with food insecurity rather than feeding the wealthy.
Swanson does purchasing for the Mobile Market, which she calls a “wonderful, wonderful asset to Champaign-Urbana.”
“It’s a free market to those who come,” she said.
That is far from being the only hat she wears. Swanson is on the steering committee doing farm-to-school work with Sola Gratia Farm in Urbana, hones her culinary skills with dinners at Prairie Fruits Farm and is the founder of the Allerton Forest Mansion dinner held every April.
Swanson, 40, also serves as director for Hendrick House farm, a 10-acre site that has been leased to the business by a former resident.
“In addition to growing much produce and managing the Hendrick House rooftop garden at the dormitory, she also sponsors programs for children through the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation to teach them about farming and have fun on the farm and offers produce on a weekly basis to members of a community-supported agriculture program during the summer harvest,” said Betsy Hendrick, part-owner of Hendrick House along with her sister, Bobbie, and niece, Emily. Bobbie’s husband, Terrell Williams, runs the company.
One day recently, more than 25 children came and toured the farm and picked strawberries. Edison Middle School science teacher Julie Anders and volunteers led an educational chicken egg activity.
A workshop was held with the first- and second-graders from the DREAAM program, a nonprofit group in C-U and Rantoul that targets at-risk African American youth from pre-K to high school.
Swanson’s pet rescue pigs, Jude and FreeBee, were on hand as the children learned about pollination and created their own sun catcher butterflies to take home.
Swanson said the children learn how chickens and pigs fertilize the ground and how pigs root up and “till for you in a natural way.”
“Most important, my rescue pigs eat the food waste from Hendrick House farm, which is really, really important,” she said.
Members of the Community Supported Agriculture Program pay a fee for weekly produce during the summer that includes summer squash, kohlrabi, green beans, broccoli, chioggia beets, spring onions, cherry tomatoes, leeks, cucumbers, jalapenos and mints.
Swanson had the opportunity to come to live in central Illinois in 2013 to start a Farm for Food service.
She took part in a grant program through the University of Illinois and a Beginning Farmer-Rancher Program that taught people how to apply for loans and write a business plan.
“From there, I had a 3-acre farm for a couple of years,” Swanson said.
“Most of the cooks working for Hendrick House were untrained and didn’t really have the skills to process fresh food or order it or cook with it. We started a lot of training classes within the company on why (fresh food) is better, why it tastes better and why it’s better for the client.”
Swanson was awarded a grant in 2016 for Sustainable Ag Research and Education to write a book to help food service workers identify foods, seasonal ingredients, teach how to cook seasonally and how to budget.
It’s less expensive to cook seasonally.
“Budgets are super small in institutional kitchens, where you might get $2.10 per kid per meal,” Swanson said.
In 2018, Hendrick House outgrew the incubator plot at the university and began looking for a more long-term lease.
Friend Michael Vitoux had inherited some land from his family, and he wanted to see it farmed sustainably (people were out there before Hendrick House).
The Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation had a 1-acre garden plot across the driveway from that plot and was looking for someone to maintain it.
“We became a teaching farm,” Swanson said. “We had done a little community outreach on our 3-acre farm.”
In addition to DREAAM house, Swanson said her program hosts The Well Experience, which targets female youth, “where we host workshops for them and they can learn STEM projects.”
“What was so great was that everybody out there, including the farmers around us, all have the same vision of how the land should be treated,” Swanson said.
“So we all have the same beliefs in terms of sustainability.”
Swanson received a grant to build a greenhouse from the Lumpkin Family Foundation, which was recently finished and will be operational this fall.
“That way, kids can still come in the winter months and participate in planting and growing vegetables,” she said.
Hendrick said Swanson “is committed to our farming community, addressing the problems of farmers and encouraging legislative action in support of the local farmers and sustainable farming.”
She said Swanson is “dedicated to growing nutritious produce and herbs for local families as in farm to table. I can’t say enough about her knowledge of sustainable farming and concerns about involving the children and families in our communities in farm-to-table products.”