Federal and state agencies work to make local food more available in Illinois
CHICAGO, Feb. 3, 2012—Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced an agreement Friday that could accelerate access to fresh local foods in Illinois markets, restaurants and schools. Speaking in Chicago at a Midwest conference on expanding local food delivery systems, Merrigan explained that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and the administration of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn have joined forces to support the effort to establish food hubs across the state.
A growing interest in local foods has prompted supermarkets and locally owned food stores alike to now post signs that tout the Illinois source of their produce, meat and poultry. As consumer interest in locally-produced food grows, grocery stores and farm-to-school programs are scrambling to meet the expanding demand. Consequently, a new food system, called “food hubs,” is emerging that promises a consistent and reliable supply of locally and regionally grown food from small to mid-sized farmers.
USDA Rural Development and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity agreed to work together to jumpstart the process of developing food hubs by coordinating their outreach efforts and making it easier for businesses, agricultural producers and non-profits to access their resources. Both agencies have loan and grant programs to support the development of food hubs and other local food efforts. The two agencies worked with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to simplify the process of applying for funding from both agencies by developing a common checklist of required information. They hope the new user-friendly process will encourage interested individuals and organizations to contact the two agencies.
Food hubs can expand the availability of local foods beyond food co-ops and farmers markets by making safe, healthy local food more available and economical for shoppers, diners and school children. Hubs provide a common drop off point for multiple farmers and a pick up point for distribution firms and customers that want to buy source-verified local and regional food. The key mechanism in distributing local foods is to create large, consistent and reliable supplies of locally-produced foods.
Business management teams at food hubs access wholesale markets and can coordinate efforts with distributors, processors and buyers. Hub management oversees the local food supply coming in and going out to maintain an adequate supply of locally produced products. They also work with farmers to coordinate farm planting schedules and manage product varieties in order to promote variety in local product supplies and help assure consistent year-round production.
Food hubs provide space and equipment needed for food to be stored, lightly processed if necessary, packed, put on pallets and possibly sold under the hub’s regional label. The space can serve as a terminal for wholesale and retail vending of regional foods.
USDA and DCEO can help fund projects that support all of these activities. Organizations interested in applying for grants or loans to assist in the development of food hubs by calling USDA Rural Development at 217-403-6202 or by calling the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity at 800-252-2923.
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