by Cassidy Dellorto-Blackwell & Jacquelyn Evers
We’ve been “sheltering in place” in Illinois for going on nine weeks. If you’ve been the select household member to brave the frenetic energy at the grocery store, or if you’ve listened to the news, it’s obvious that something weird is happening with our food system. The arrival of COVID-19 exposed the fragility of our global marketplace and brought to light the intense complexity of our supply chains. In doing so, we are also learning about the benefits of short supply chains (see ILFMA graphic below), and the increased safety and security that comes from getting our food from close to where we live.
In the grocery store, the empty shelves have expressed our deepest concerns. First it was toilet paper, then it was flour, then meat. While Illinois doesn’t contribute much fiber to the TP industry, we at least raise wheat and livestock, right? Well, yes, but maybe not as much as you’d think. Champaign County is home to over 1,000 farms that cover more than 90% of our county’s land,1 but most of that is not farmed to feed our community. Instead, our characteristic fields of corn and soybeans are harvested primarily as feed for livestock, often living in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in other states. In fact, less than 5% of the food we consume in Illinois is grown here. So how do we create a food system where we do not rely on 95% of our food being shipped into our grocery stores; especially since we now know that these stores can be quickly disrupted during an international disturbance like our current pandemic? At The Land Connection, we’ve believed for years that the solution is our small farms.
Our small farms represent the epitome of resilience and adaptation. In central Illinois specifically, farmers are used to dealing with uncertainty. Over the past several years, our grain, fruit and vegetable, and livestock farmers have dealt with intense flooding and droughts, not to mention ever-changing consumer preferences. These farmers, like many others outside of our region, are skilled at innovating and pivoting their operations to continue to feed our communities. However, this year’s pandemic is yet another challenge for farmers to face and, unfortunately, as it just begins to unfold, many are being forced to overturn their entire business structures.
Impacts on farm businesses due to COVID-19 have ranged in severity and complexity. When institutions like schools and universities shut down, the contracts to supply their cafeterias disappeared and farmers lacked the capital and connections to shift to new packaging requirements of other sales outlets. When COVID-19 hit meat processing plants, farmers had no place to send their animals for processing and those animals quickly outgrew the desired size for processors. When migrant worker visas were halted, farmers lacked the necessary labor to harvest vegetables. What we see broadcast on news stations is a grim depiction of farmers dumping gallons of milk, euthanizing thousands of animals, and letting acres of vegetables go to waste in their fields. This is the result of an incredibly complex institutional supply chain, not our farmers. The food system we currently support makes it near impossible for quick, easy shifts, and that results in the massive food waste we’ve seen on the news.
Despite what we have seen on the news, some producers, suppliers, and processors have been able to shift strategies and adopt new, successful models for their businesses and communities. The WheelHouse, a restaurant in St. Joseph, IL, has begun offering groceries from local producers direct to consumers to help provide farmers an avenue of sales that didn’t previously exist in their community and community members a source of fresh, locally grown and produced foods. Janie’s Mill in Iroquois County has ramped up production of local organic flours. This operation has not only helped to fill a need in the supply chain, but has also provided employment to newly unemployed community members.
The fact that our local small farms, grocers, restaurants, and processors have been able to respond and adapt shows the potential for a new way forward. It shows that there is the potential to bring our food system back down to the local level. And it shows that we, the eaters, can help to get us there. By putting our dollars back into our local economy, through the purchase of local foods, we can expect our local producers to grow more food to meet the food needs of our community. In turn, this creates a cascading effect that leads to increased infrastructure and processing capacity that will continue to shorten the supply chain and keep our foods, dollars, and jobs all contributing to our local economy. It’s the positive feedback loop we need to build our collective resiliency.
Luckily, the Champaign-Urbana area is ripe with ways to purchase local foods. Here are a couple of ideas for getting started:
- Learn about your local producers and how and where to get their products. Thanks to Buy Fresh Buy Local, it’s easy to find producers near you. It’s also easy to find restaurants and grocers that sell local products.
- Join a CSA (community supported agriculture). Many local farms offer CSA shares which provide customers with a weekly subscription for produce, meat, flowers, apples, and more!
- Visit a farmers market. While markets look different this year due to new safety protocols, you can still expect to find all of the beautiful summer produce you’ve come to expect (give it some time before you ask for tomatoes, though!). Beginning May 19, the Champaign Farmers Market will be open 3-6pm every Tuesday in the Busey Bank parking lot in downtown Champaign. The Urbana Market AT the Square opened a couple of weeks ago and operates Saturdays 7am-12pm outside of Lincoln Square Mall. If you’re looking for a market in another Illinois community, visit Illinois Farmers Market Association to find a market near you.
- Shop the Co-op. Visit Common Ground Food Co-op and purchase the items marked “Local” or labeled with farms in our region. Their staff is even able to help you navigate the aisles to find local options for goods you want.
- Engage! Connect with local farms and restaurants on social media. Not only will you be gifted amazing pictures of foods and farms, you may also get a more personal look into what makes the local food economy work. And, you’ll probably be alerted to some great opportunities that you might miss out on otherwise. It will be like “you know a guy” who gets you the hookup on things you may have never even knew you wanted. Pawpaws, anyone?
Of course, at some point we will emerge in a post-COVID world, and while we are working now to push systemic shifts across the food system, it will be important to be intentional in the shifts that we make to our individual habits. As you take on new practices to support your local community, try to make those habits stick. No doubt, the flavor of farm-fresh foods should be enough to keep you coming back, but old habits die hard, and it’s easy to fall back on what’s easy and convenient. Here are some tips to engrain your new food habits:
- Keep a local food log. Make notes about what products you are buying, how you are preparing them, and how you liked it. This can help you become more connected to the food, farms, and seasonality of our local products.
- Build relationships. While the new farmers market may not have as much socialization as in times past, take a moment to talk to the farmer about what they do. This can help to deepen your connection to local foods and reinforce your good habits with good feelings.
- Encourage a friend to join your journey. While we are all living in a newly isolationist era, we can still do things together. Ask a friend to also commit to purchasing local foods or start a local food club on Facebook. Invite your friends to share photos, stories, challenges, and triumphs with local foods. Having a support network greatly increases the chances of sticking with it.
Local farmers are the future of our food supply. Supporting our local producers by purchasing their locally grown, raised, and produced foods, means protecting our local food supply. It is also our best plan to ensure that when the next crisis hits, we will be able to provide our community with safe, healthy foods. We hope that you will join The Land Connection in committing to support our local farmers.
1. United States Department of Agriculture; National Agricultural Statistics Service; 2017 Census of Agriculture.