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Buy fresh, buy local: Consumers turn to local food system for supplies

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — If there are any silver linings in the midst of the pandemic, it’s the ramped up interest in the local food system.

“People are looking for reliable local food, shorter supply chains and literally fewer people touching the food as it goes through the supply chains,” said Liz Moran Stelk, Illinois Stewardship Alliance executive director.

“The good news is farmers have said they’ve been selling out of (community supported agriculture) shares and especially local meat producers who sell direct have been selling boatloads of meat.”

The folks that can do delivery, especially home delivery, also have been doing great.

“One really inspiring story that we heard was from Marty Travis of Down at the Farms (a farmer-to-farmer marketing and delivery service based near Fairbury). Sixty farmers work together and Marty had been delivering primarily to restaurants in Chicago. He had 40 chefs that they were delivering food to from central Illinois,” Stelk said.

“They knew these farm-to-table restaurants were going to be shut due to the pandemic, and only three them were still buying from him and overnight he and his son, Will, pivoted from restaurant sales to direct market and they put out the word just by email. It’s been very successful. If they hadn’t made that transition quickly, there would be a lot more pain. I’m just really grateful.

“Some of those restaurants are coming back online now, so, they’re trying to retain both the wholesale restaurant customers and those individuals and families that are coming to pick up at locations in the city. That’s been really exciting to hear.”

Challenges Remain

Unfortunately, not every farmer’s business has been bolstered; especially impacted are those who had farmers markets that are either closed or have yet to open for the season, and those who sell wholesale to restaurants and weren’t able to quickly pivot.

“The downside is a lot of folks have struggled with having the capacity, the time, the ability to shift to online ordering. There are others who said they really struggle with safety — we’ve heard there’s not enough personal protective equipment and they can’t find (personal protective equipment) to buy. So, we’ve been trying to figure that out,” Stelk said.

“We’ve heard there are backups in processing and they’re hearing from their processor that it will be a year before they get in.”

She credited farmers markets’ efforts to comply with safety standards such as social distancing. However, Stelk added, a lot of that work has fallen on the farmers to meet new packaging requirements for touch-less deliveries and processing preorders.

“So, even maintaining the level of business they had been doing will cost them a lot more because of all these changes they’ve had to do. To their credit, they’ve done this and they’ve been doing the hard work, often without any new resources and very little guidance,” she said.

Lack Of Guidance

There is also frustration with the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Illinois Department of Agriculture; while farmers markets have been labeled essential, there is a lack of guidance about how they can safely operate.

“The Illinois Farmers Market Association stepped in and they’ve provided guidance and it’s been great. But it’s such a small association as opposed to actual state guidance and clarity. So, that’s been a big source of frustration for a lot of folks,” Stelk said.

“The good news is we reached out to IDOA Director Jerry Costello and asked if we could bring him these concerns. He met with us and a few other local producers and was interested in learning more. We met again June 2 and reiterated these concerns and they directed us to someone who can help us find PPE. That’s a game-changer. They’re listening and they’re trying.”

Buy Fresh, Buy Local

In an effort to reach out to local food producers to check on their wellness and the impact of COVID-19, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance set up a phone bank in April. Volunteers and staff members have talked to hundreds of producers since the program started.

As part of those calls, the Alliance wanted to let producers know that they could join the new collective marketing campaign Buy Fresh Buy Local Illinois local food directory. It’s the first one-stop shop for finding local products in Illinois.

Buy Fresh Buy Local Illinois features a searchable online database of local food businesses, an annual print directory and year-round media campaigns to promote local food.

This new program is powered by a coalition of the leading food and farm organizations and agencies across the state. By combining resources, energy, information and funding, the coalition aims to create a single go-to local food resource for customers.

Participating businesses can get listed for free in the online directory and can be included in the print directory for a small fee.

Farm Aid

The Illinois Stewardship Alliance launched a new relief fund program recently in partnership with Farm Aid. The program provides $500 emergency relief grants for local food producers and all farmers in Illinois who have been impacted by COVID-19.

On April 11, Farm Aid hosted a virtual show, At Home With Farm Aid, with performances by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Dave Matthews to show support and solidarity for family farmers and ranchers.

Farm Aid will be disbursing the $400,000 raised from the live-streamed event through a national COVID-19 Farmer Resilience Initiative that will quickly distribute emergency funds in the amount of $500 to farm families.

Funds through this application are reserved for farms in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan that have the highest need and practice sustainable methods.

Family farms are defined as those where a substantial portion of family income comes from agricultural production and the family is actively engaged in day-to-day farm management and labor.

Sustainable farms are defined as farming or ranching units that produce horticultural crops, tree crops, or animals intended for human consumption, integrate goals of environmental stewardship, economic profitability and social and economic equity into their farming system.

Rural residences that obtain a small portion of income from agricultural products are not eligible. Only one grant is allowed per family or farm operation.

Use of the funds is restricted to household expenses, such as groceries, home utilities, medical bills, counseling, or other household expenses not directly related to the commercial operation of the farm or ranch. The funds may not be used for any business expense or investment.

Applications will be available until the money runs out. Farmers can apply online at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/FarmAidCOVIDGreatLakes.

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