Community Food Security
by Jim Slama
The Chicago region hosted a tremendous gathering in early November. It was the Illinois Food Security Summit, a creation of the Chicago Community Trust. Two hundred local experts on issues relating to "food security" met at the Pheasant Run conference center in St. Charles to talk about growing organic food locally, distributing healthy food to inner city residents, and feeding the hungry and homeless.
The food security movement has gained strong momentum in recent years by focusing on the nutritional needs of underprivileged people and this approach was a major component of the conference. "The summit provided a unique opportunity for anti-hunger leaders to learn more about food production from organic to conventional farming while at the same time educating others about the needs of the 8.2 percent of Illinois households that suffer from food insecurity and over 3 percent who are hungry," said Diane Doherty, executive director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition. "It was a good step in forging new coalitions to promote greater access to affordable, nutritious food in low-income communities statewide."
In recent years, the movement has expanded its scope to include food grown sustainably and regionally — this is known as community food security. As America faces the threat of increased terrorism, the term "community food security" takes on an even greater meaning. I remember seeing one analyst on national television soon after the 9/11 attacks who speculated that terrorists might destroy the bridges over the Mississippi River to prevent food and other necessities from being transported cross-country. I also think about the vast amount of oil the U.S. imports from the Middle East. What would happen to the price of food if that supply was cut off and gasoline prices skyrocketed as a result? And, of course, large centralized food distribution and processing centers are potential targets for bio-terrorists who could disrupt the confidence of Americans in the very food they eat by poisoning it with chemical or biological agents.
In any of these cases, or hundreds of other potential scenarios, the availability of fresh, safe food to people who depend on food shipped from thousands of miles away may be jeopardized. So here in the Midwest, where fresh food is primarily grown in California, Florida, or Latin America and then shipped to the region, a significant component of food security can be the capacity to grow and process organic food at a regional level.
The link between local organic production and supporting the needy became evident when I spoke with Les Brown of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH). Brown made a compelling analogy, saying "I look at food security in a similar way to how I look at the homeless issue. In the short term with the homeless we strive to provide emergency shelter, but the ultimate solution is to provide affordable housing and jobs. I look at food security the same way. In the short term we must provide emergency food for people who don’t have food. Yet the long term solution is a ready supply of healthy food that provides good nutrition."
So Brown and CCH have created a program called Growing Home through which they are developing gardens and greenhouses that will grow organic food for homeless shelters and sell to restaurants and other buyers. The program will be staffed by homeless people who will receive job training through growing, processing, and marketing the food — eventually enabling them to get jobs in the private sector and end their homelessness. In a similar effort, Ken Dunn and the Resource Center are growing food on eight acres of land in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Ultimately Dunn’s project will include greenhouses and a school to teach local neighborhood residents about growing and cooking healthy food. "This project will be a boon to the neighborhood," says Dunn. "It will bring people together for a common purpose, build community, and provide a nutritious alternative to the fast food restaurants and convenience stores which provide far too much of the food in the area."
The summit addressed these types of issues and more. "We intended that organic, sustainable, and conventional farmers meeting with local, state, and federal officials would result in greater availability of high quality food at reasonable cost to low-income people throughout Illinois," said summit organizer Michael Marcus, a program officer at the Chicago Community Trust. "We have already accomplished greater cooperation between those concerned with food production and those concerned with distribution through food banks, food stamps, soup kitchens, and school breakfast and lunch programs."
Austin residents LaDonna? and Tracy Redmond represented another perspective that came through at the summit. They created a farmers’ market in their community this year to sell locally grown organic food to residents of this neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. One of their primary suppliers was a group of African-American growers from the Pembroke farms in the Kankakee region. These farmers sold truckloads of organic produce at the Austin Farmers’ Market and look forward to participating in other urban markets next year. The Redmonds also hope to create a food cooperative in Austin so that families in the area have ready access to healthy organic food year round.
Orrin Williams of the Center for Urban Transformation is also working on this issue and believes that a network of such co-ops can have a strong impact on the diets of inner city residents as well as the fiber of the local communities. "A major component of the summit focused on the nutritional needs of low-income residents," he says. "I believe that cooperatives will engage members of urban communities at very deep levels. They will get far more connected to the source of their food, have access to chemical-free and minimally processed food, and spend more time with their families and neighbors, thus building the community."
Attendees of the summit also showed a strong commitment to changing public policy in the state to better address hunger issues. "It was a good step in forging new relationships to build coalitions to promote greater access to affordable, nutritious food in low-income communities statewide," says Diane Doherty. "There were creative discussions about how to open farmers’ markets to participants in the food stamp and WIC nutrition programs. Attendees were also encouraged to get involved in public policy action to help alleviate hunger by calling and writing to U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald and asking for his support for improvements to the Food Stamp Program in the pending Farm Bill."
The top priority of attendees of the summit was the goal of creating a Chicago area food council. Such a group would advocate to create and fund programs to ensure that all people in the region receive adequate nutrition. It would also link other important issues that were addressed at the summit such as farmer development, food distribution, and urban food production. "The Food Security Summit has given tremendous momentum to the creation of this council," says Rodger Cooley, of Heifer Project International. "It is going to be a boon to the regional food security movement."
The notion of community food security fits in perfectly with Mayor Daley’s plan to make Chicago, "The greenest city in America." The city has already taken major steps toward this goal by attracting Spire Solar, one of the country’s largest solar manufacturers, to Chicago. A strong commitment to regional organic foods is a logical link to the large-scale urban forestry and greening programs already underway and to a new city effort to attract and support other green businesses.
Organic food consumption has been growing at a 20 percent annual clip in recent years and Chicago is home to a vibrant network of natural food retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s, and Wild Oats Market. It’s easy to see why the organic market offers a tremendous economic development opportunity. Clearly a strong organic food distribution center that links regional farmers and small processors with food retailers can be the central hub in a rapidly growing component of the local economy.
In fact, one of the top concerns of attendees at the Illinois Food Security Summit was this very point — setting up a distribution system to link farmers with markets. According to session convener, Juli Brussel, the attendees envisioned an organic wholesale system modeled on Chicago’s South Water Street Market. It would offer regional and local pick-up/drop-off sites for farmers with delivery to the Chicago area. It would include a warehouse facility, coolers, access to minimal processing and post-harvest handling, and connections with community incubator kitchens for processed products. And finally, it would handle delivery to stores, restaurants, schools, prisons, homeless shelters, and food banks. Such a system would have to integrate with a robust network of organic farms which ultimately could include organic growers in Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Another element of the summit focused on farmer development and creation of policies and systems to support existing and new organic farms. According to Tom Spaulding of the Community Supported Agriculture Learning Center at Angelic Organics, "We need a base of regional organic farmers to serve our region’s needs for fresh and healthy foods. Small organic farms are more ecologically sustainable, reduce the distance between food and table, provide consumers with more nutritious produce, and generate more income and employment in the local economy."
Attendees of the summit pointed out that 30 percent of the small farms in Illinois have disappeared in the past fifteen years and that such losses are damaging rural communities and contributing to suburban sprawl. A strong network of organic farms ringing Chicago could go a long way toward preserving the open space and character of the outlying counties in the Chicago region.
Community food security also has the opportunity to include two principles that are absent from most of today’s industrialized food systems: fair trade and social justice. This is an opportunity to create a food system that is more cooperative than competitive, that pays living wages, that provides job training, that incorporates social and environmental responsibility. Such a system will also create opportunities for small entrepreneurs to build businesses that enhance local economies and treat employees as significant stake holders.
The payoffs of this type of system would be dramatic — healthy food, healthy people, good jobs. It could provide solutions to hunger, build rural and urban economies, and turn abandoned city lots into luscious oases of locally grown food and community jobs.
What a great opportunity to connect people with their food!