A large motivator for my personal research, as well as a compliment and growing support system for all of the hardworking Carbondale local foodies is the Illinois Food Farm and Jobs Act. This House Bill (3990) was introduced in February 2009 by Representative Julie Hamos (House Agriculture and Conservation Committee). It was amended the following March and April, and then signed in to law August 18, 2009. The bill has yet to have a first birthday.
Primarily, the bill creates a council implemented by the Illinois Department of Agriculture which is labeled a “not-for-profit corporation tasked with facilitating the growth of an Illinois-based local food and farm product economy.” Currently, four, count them FOUR of the thirty-five council members are from Carbondale, Illinois. They include two Southern Illinois University employees; Geography professor Dr. Leslie Duram and University Housing Dining Chef William Connors. Community members include Tom Grant, Carbondale City Council member and local food promoter, and Chuck Paprocki of Dayempur (organic) Farm in Anna, Illinois. The intention and hopes of the bill are to increase the purchase of Illinois food products in state institutions such as prisons and schools.
Before I go any further, can I just say that I am beyond excited for this? I think that such a bill is long, long overdue. I remember riding in the giant corn and bean combine with my dad when I was in elementary school and asking him, “So where does this go? Is this the same corn we buy in the store?”
“No,” my dad answered.
At that time, I didn’t understand the difference between edible sweet-corn and corn intended for animal feed. Regardless of my childhood naiveté however, even a child is able to reason at a very basic level, and spot a contradiction in supply and demand. I would stare at the rows disappearing into the combine-head, being eaten up rhythmically and endlessly: the supply. My mother would bring dinners packed in coolers to my father and his workers as they stayed in the field late into the autumn nights: the demand. Of course, the matter of a closed-loop food system is not as simple a thing as my child-self thought it was. I am reminded of the Bible verse that states, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I did away with childish things” (1 Cor. 13.11). Well, maturation has taught me a little more about food-systems, and I understand that the majority of Illinois farm-land (about 75% percent of IL is cropland according to a 2009 USDA IL land use survey) is dedicated to crops such as corn and soybeans, which are not directly consumed in their natural form. Still, basic economic classes have reaffirmed that childhood observation that in Illinois, there is a division between agriculture supply and food demand.
According to the Food Farms and Job Act website, Illinois citizens spend nearly $48 billion in food purchases each year, the majority of which goes to other state or even international economies. This number nearly equals the yearly state budget. (Any Illinois citizen can testify for the budget woes which have wracked our state in recent years.) Illinois still remains a major power-player in the USA agriculture economy, however, an “overdependence” on foreign food sources reflects a “lost opportunity.”
Within the last decade, there has been an increase in awareness of agricultural sustainability, food safety, food security, and the benefits of eating locally. Farmer’s markets in Illinois continue to increase. With the passing of this bill, I see a new gained opportunity. The members of the council have an opportunity to help build the Illinois economy, support small family farms (specifically, specialty farms that are rarely supported by national subsidies), increase awareness of food choices and food purchase implications, and create a healthier dinner-time. The council hopes that eventually, Illinois-grown and packaged food products will be specially labeled in Illinois groceries and markets, so that consumers can choose local foods. What an exciting notion.
Because SIUC is a state institution, this bill directly affects the purchasing units of university dining halls. By 2020, Illinois institutions must purchase 20% of their products from Illinois farmers or producers. Part of my research is intended to help SIUC not only meet, but exceed this goal. SIUC is shooting for 40% local food purchases by 2020, placing our dining hall at the forefront of environmental sustainability in the Midwest, possibly even in the nation. Currently, research funded by the SIU Green Fee is helping to make this lofty goal a reality. To help offset any initial cost inflation in shifting from a national to state product, the bill allows schools to bid 10% higher (on the lowest bid) for food purchases than their budget typically allows. For now, my job is to find potential local producers in Illinois, as well as within a 250 mile radius of SIUC. Eventually, I will be tracking where current food ingredients in the dining hall come from, targeting which ingredients are travelling furthest, and spatially analyzing current purchasing patterns. Hopefully, snapshots of this information will be available soon!