Oct 18, 2011  |  Today's News

Originally published on Agrinews, by Tom Doran


Illinois corn producers are doing their part to provide fresh, healthy food for those residing in “food deserts.”

This marks the second year that the Illinois Corn Marketing Board has teamed up with University of Illinois Extension, industry and health care providers in the City Produce Project, targeting urban food deserts that lack access to fresh produce.

The program provides agencies targeting diabetes and obesity with a regular supply of locally-grown, fresh vegetables and onsite nutrition education programs.

Food deserts are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.

Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.

The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

USDA’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts. More than half of those people — 13.5 million — are low-income.

Tricia Braid, communications director of Illinois Corn Growers Association and Illinois Corn Marketing Board, gave an overview of the City Produce Project at the Local Foods Connections Summit, hosted by the Illinois Farm Bureau.

“Illinois Corn has been working for years, like the other ag organizations, to get other people to know more about us and our needs. We’ve done a poor job getting to know more about what other people need,” she said.

“So we wanted to focus on Chicago and find out as we go to the Chicago legislators and influencers and ask them to support our needs as farmers to really find out what their needs are. That was why we got involved in the City Produce Project.”

One of the statistics that drew the attention of the ICMB leadership was that Chicago’s Austin neighborhood was designated as a food desert by USDA, despite the fact that it is located in the inner city.

“The people there on average eat less than one pound of fresh vegetables in the course of a year, and that was amazing to us,” Braid said.

With no grocery stores within a mile of the Austin neighborhood and with many of its low-income residents having no access to transportation, they are limited to purchasing food at nearby convenience stores of fast food chains.

“We thought that corn farmers needed to get engaged in this project and find out more about the needs,” Braid said.

Key components of the program are:

n Vegetable production by Extension Master Gardeners and researchers and local farmers at different sites including farms and the Cook County Jail garden;

n Growbox vegetable production at more than additional sites throughout the Chicago area;

n Distribution of tens of thousands of pounds of fresh vegetables throughout the growing season by the Greater Chicago Food Depository;

n Nutrition classroom education conducted by Extension staff in more than a dozen communities; and

n Intern program that exposes inner city students to food jobs.

“The property of the Cook County Jail was identified as an area where we could help grow fresh produce to be delivered into the urban food desert of Chicago,” Braid said.

She added when the prisoners complete the growing project, they earn master gardeners status.

“They were able to learn a life skill and something that’s marketable in the job market while they were helping to assist in getting food delivered into these food desert areas in Chicago,” she said.

“Corn farmers also contributed to this. We had 22 corn farmers around Illinois and three in the Chicagoland area that donated a portion of their ground to be planted directly to sweet corn that was donated to local food pantry.

“We delivered something like 15 tons of sweet corn to the Chicago Food Depository. The foods that were chosen were culturally appropriate for our target audiences. So there were things like okra and peppers, in addition to the sweet corn that we raised through our corn farmers.”

Other crops included leafy greens, snap beans, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, squash and fresh herbs. In total, there were about 75,000 pounds of produce distributed to urban food deserts during its 2010 pilot year.

“Part of the program was not just donating the food, but it was teaching people how to use it,” Braid said. “We all have great intentions and the local food system is a great idea, but doesn’t work for everybody — not because it can’t work, but just because just through culture and the way things have happened, they don’t really know what to do with the fresh food.

“They don’t have the capacity in many cases like in Austin to even cook it. These became some primary obstacles to delivering this fresh food into these areas.”

The program hasn’t gone on without obstacles to overcome, particularly heavy rains the past two springs.

“Some of our sweet corn projects were rained out. Also the Extension research center at St. Charles had a lot of rain so the vegetable plantings were delayed, so we didn’t really get to start delivering vegetables until mid-July,” Braid said.

The growboxes were a unique way to get more involved in the project.

“In addition to the food that was delivered to the Chicago Food Depository, there were some lessons of how to actually grow your own food using earth boxes. These were highly valued by the participants,” Braid said.

“The process of growing their own food really connected them to it. This was just a small attempt at a large-scale need. However, it was very valuable.”

She also noted that two Will County growers had local Boy Scouts and church members assist in picking sweet corn.

“Not only did the sweet corn get delivered into the city through the Chicago Food Depository, but also these two farmers were able to make connections in their own community with other community members that they hadn’t met before and partner in that effort,” she said.

The Chicago High School for Agriculture Sciences also partnered in the program and had plots.

“Our farmers that participated really enjoyed this process. We’re great at feeding the world. We export half of our corn out of the state, but that doesn’t mean were not interested in feeding people locally. It’s just that that’s where we’ve come to find ourselves in large commodity production,” Braid said.

“One of the many reasons we grow corn, soybeans and wheat is that they keep. That’s the root of food security. You can put it in a bin and save it for the day when you really need something.

“So until we all can recognize that together and kind of get past the adversarial nature of some of these discussions that we have, recognize where we are and find a way to accommodate all of the needs and interest of everyone working together, I have no doubt that we can get it done.

“And our farmers that participated in this project, I think if they were here they would tell you that they found it to be very personally rewarding. At the local level, several of the farmers commented to me that they had no idea that there was so much need in their own area.

“We’ll continue to be involved and harvest this and hopefully harvest some better relationships along the way.”