ATLANTA, Ill. — The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition heard details of new central Illinois initiatives that are developing local food infrastructure during a visit to the PrairiErth Food Hub facility Aug. 6.

Washington, D.C.-based NSAC was in Illinois for its annual meeting and is a grassroots alliance that advocates for federal policy reform supporting the long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and rural communities.

Two of the local food efforts are underway in Peoria and Mt. Pulaski through a “Local Foods, Local Places” program sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Northern Border Regional Commission.

The Illinois communities were among 15 across the nation selected this year to receive grants through the federal agencies.

The Mt. Pulaski Economic Development and Planning Board is working to create a local food hub, community food co-op, and a community garden on an underused empty lot to revitalize the downtown business district and support surrounding farms.

As part of the development to both local food and green infrastructure strategies, Peoria is exploring the potential development of a fresh food hub as a multipurpose facility aimed at improving health outcomes and creating food-based business opportunities for residents of underserved neighborhoods.

A third initiative partnering an elementary school in Lincoln, Illinois, and the local hospital with local farmers is currently in its early stages. Its objective is to have 40% of the school cafeteria food local in a budget-neutral basis.

“You can see things changing very, very rapidly over the last year,” Dave Bishop of PrairiErth Farm said to the dozens of visitors.

It is hoped that the local food systems models being developed in the large community of Peoria and the rural community of Mt. Pulaski will serve as models for future expansions.

“We’re trying to figure out what fits in the area that we are trying to develop this model in, and if we can develop a model that’s exportable to other communities then we could start really expanding rapidly because now your community can take advantage of the lessons learned,” Bishop said.

Regional Food System

Tory Dahlhoff, Greater Peoria Economic Develop Council’s communications and outreach director and rural development coordinator, said in recent years the EDC has taken a closer look at “how regional food systems can be used to drive economic development and not just disregard it as some boutique type of farming.

“It’s not just farmers markets. It’s not just small farms. We’re looking at the whole supply chain and how we can develop a regional value-based food supply chain that grows new businesses, helps small communities develop themselves, and creates some new linkages between rural and urban communities.”

EDC is one of the lead organizations in the Regional Fresh Food Council. The group represents over five counties with members from other organizations and individuals working in food systems development with assistance from the “Local Foods, Local Places” grant program.

“In Peoria, we were the first in the country to hold our workshop this year. The focus of that workshop and our action plan that came out of that is how might we develop what we’re calling a Food Equity Center in Peoria’s south side that could contain a version of a food hub to bring in more produce from within our region from farmers like Dave,” Dahlhoff said.

“Also with the growing number of community gardens in Peoria and how they might aggregate, how our institutions might start to procure, but then also all of the things that people love to have in these centers. Perhaps some sort of commercial kitchen for people to develop food products, some sort of training programs, a workforce development for sure.

“We hope to connect it with the Mt. Pulaski effort as we continue to do what we can to build this regional infrastructure for some real economic development using our food system.”

Food Co-Op

The second local food systems model is being developed in Mt. Pulaski through the federal grant and a team of community-minded citizens.

“Everyone is familiar with what’s going on in rural America as we watch our small towns dry up and die, it’s no secret that we’ve got to figure out some way to get economic development going on in rural America. The biggest industry in rural America is food. What if we use our food system better and focus on keeping our wealth that we create on the land in the community and serving our small towns,” Bishop said.

Tom Martin, a Mt. Pulaski farmer, chairs the town’s Economic Development and Planning Board, an organization formed two years ago.

“I am passionate about my community. I love where I live. I love my people and I’m trying to find out how we make our community better again,” Martin said.

Funding for economic develop is provided through a 1% sales tax and support from a local wind farm. The council received an upfront payment of $250,000 and operates with an annual budget of $220,000. The economic development group started two years ago.

“One of the first things we identified was we had lost our grocery store three years ago, so how can we bring a business in that there’s actually a need for within the community and we don’t have to develop that demand,” Martin said.

“The driver for me is economical. It just makes all the sense in the world if I can keep 30% of my money within the community and then we serve as a new anchor store and other things coming around it. For a small town, investing within your own community has to be one of the main goals.

“We’ve incorporated a community grocery co-op this summer and our hope is to open in early 2020. We’re not only looking a fresh foods. We’re looking at convenience. We’re looking to take care of our people who have to drive 20 miles to get something to eat.

“I just met with our churches that do local food banks and provide the needy with food. So, we’re also trying to coordinate with them to be able get food into the hands of those who need it. My hope is we can donate all of that food.”

Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or tdoran@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.

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