Illinois Eats holds promise for farmers, communities

by Admin
Illinois Eats holds promise for farmers, communities

I am writing in response to the recent editorial (“A Pritzker program to boost disadvantaged farmers has left them holding the bag,” June 7) on the Illinois Eats program, or IL-EATS. My wife and I, as first-generation farmers operating Kakadoodle Farm in Cook County, have firsthand experience with this initiative. We specialize in pasture-raised eggs and have partnered with lead agencies to distribute our products to food banks across the state.

Our involvement with IL-EATS enabled us to expand our operations significantly; we added 2,000 chickens to our flock in anticipation of the program’s start. However, the unexpected delay from December to April presented substantial financial challenges. Due to the increased flock, cost of feed alone surged to an additional $8,000 per month, compounded by other expenses.  We had nowhere to move this extra inventory of eggs, so they had to be donated. The total financial strain during these months was daunting, as every day without the program’s kickoff meant deeper financial losses for our burgeoning farm.

Despite these hurdles, the program eventually allowed us to distribute our pasture-raised eggs, a high-quality, nutritious food that food bank patrons would likely not have access to otherwise. Although we are currently navigating the complexities of typical business practices, we remain optimistic.

The IL-EATS program holds promise not just for us but also for all socially disadvantaged farmers looking to scale their operations and reach more people in need. By connecting families facing food insecurity with fresh, local food, the program not only supports local agriculture but also promotes health and community resilience.

I urge state leaders and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue to invest in and refine programs like IL-EATS. Despite the initial financial and operational challenges, these programs are vital bridges connecting the produce of local farms like ours with people in our communities who need it most.

With better planning and timely execution, such initiatives can strengthen local food systems and provide essential support to both producers and consumers.

— Marty Thomas, Kakadoodle Farm, Matteson

Slower rollout was necessary

Regarding the June 7 editorial and its inaccurate depiction of the IL-EATS program, Illinois’ implementation of U.S. Department of Agriculture Local Food Purchase Agreement (LFPA) funding: The editorial demeans and seeks to derail two years of hard work to develop this groundbreaking Illinois program that, despite stumbles in its initial rollout, is already delivering on its vision.

IL-EATS is an innovative collaboration among Illinois’ Department of Agriculture, Department of Human Services and University of Illinois Extension with a diverse coalition of partners across the food supply chain: farmers, food banks, wholesalers, community pantries, farmers markets and nutrition programs. More than 300 participants from rural, suburban and urban communities gave input at 30 listening sessions across Illinois, including socially disadvantaged producers, food aggregators, front-line pantries and mutual aid groups.

Yes, this thoughtful approach meant a slower program rollout, but it ensured the $30 million program was far more accessible to a broad range of partners who otherwise would have been shut out.

While initial administrative issues have been challenging for producers, IL-EATS is unquestionably delivering better quality food from a diverse network of smaller, newer growers benefiting from previously unavailable opportunities. Food recipients report improvements in the freshness, quality and cultural diversity of the food provided by 120 farms and distributed by 217 community partners working with 15 lead agencies. Sixty percent of IL-EATS farmers have operated for under 10 years, with 20% under 3 years — huge gains in Illinois where the average farmer is older than 58 years old. Eighty-five growers have already taken IL-EATS’ free food safety training, reducing a significant cost burden for small farmers.

IL-EATS has the potential to be a long-term success, and leadership from multiple Illinois departments and their community partners will be vital to expand IL-EATS’ much-needed opportunities to more socially disadvantaged producers in the food supply chain. Illinois’ five members on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee and U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, are key partners to passing a Farm Bill that makes the LFPA a permanent USDA program. They are encouraged to include and fund the EAT Local Foods Act (S.3982) as part of the Farm Bill.

— Rodger Cooley, executive director, Chicago Food Policy Action Council

Michael Howard moves a tray of seedlings at Edens Place Farms in Fuller Park on March 18, 2024. On the South Side, farmers at Eden Place Farms have been eagerly awaiting the IL-EATS program. (Trent Sprague/for the Chicago Tribune)

Game-changing opportunity

The June 7 Tribune editorial does not reflect my experience as a farmer participating in the IL-EATS program.

The IL-EATS program has been the single largest catalyst of growth for DuChick Ranch LLC, a small farm that my wife and I launched in 2019.

Last fall, Eastern Illinois Foodbank reached out to us about purchasing our chicken through IL-EATS for families in need that it serves in 18 counties.

We jumped at the opportunity, knowing that the healthy, local food we produce would end up in the hands of our neighbors facing hunger. We invested in critical infrastructure to more than double our production, storage and distribution capacity.

There was initially a delay in the program rollout. In fact, I was quoted in a March 25 Tribune article, “Food program delays have farmers anxious,” because I was anxious as our cold storage filled up and costs were rising.

That all changed when we made our first delivery to the food bank. Later this month, we will make our fourth. We expect to deliver more than 19,000 pounds to the food bank through the life of the program.

In March, Central Illinois Foodbank in Springfield also reached out to us.

As a beginning farm, we weren’t prepared for the demand, but like every farmer I know, we did whatever we had to do to meet the needs of our neighbors. We rapidly secured additional means of production. We expect to deliver more than 8,000 pounds to of chicken to the Central Illinois Foodbank that will reach the 21 counties it serves.

The program is a game-changing opportunity for our small 2-acre farm. The fair prices for our product through IL-EATS provided the capital for us to scale up production. In the long run, we’re in a better position to compete in wholesale markets, in addition to continuing to serve our loyal local and farmers market customers.

I thank Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the Illinois Department of Human Services, and University of Illinois Extension for the work they’ve done to get this new program running that has allowed farmers like us to be part of serving our community.

I’m thankful to the food banks that have trusted our family to feed so many others.

— Ed Dubrick, DuChick Ranch, Cissna Park

IL-EATS an empowering program

The IL-EATS program could not have come at a better time. The initiative has provided healthy, fresh, local vegetables, fruits, proteins and dairy products to neighbors who are food-insecure and may not have been able to afford these nutritious items otherwise. In just over two months, DeKalb County Community Gardens has collaborated with 12 local farmers who have provided items such as ground beef, pork, yogurt, sour cream, collards, kale, chard, lettuce, asparagus, radishes, kohlrabi, flour and eggs. For vegetables harvested by a local farmer one day to be at a food pantry the next day is a welcome change. DeKalb County Community Gardens has partnered with more than 20 local service organizations that have distributed those items to neighbors facing food insecurity.

The positive impact of these funds on farmers, food pantries and individuals facing food insecurity has been both humbling and inspiring. We heard “that flour made the best cookies I’ve ever tasted” and “thank you for supporting a small grower like me.” This program offers an outlet for excess product, the chance for expansion and the chance at going full time for those just starting out. All of our partners have benefited.

As a small nonprofit, we are grateful that the state allowed smaller organizations the opportunity to be a lead agency in this effort. This program has empowered us to be a change-maker in our community, leveraging years of experience in food advocacy. I am proud to be part of this program and witness the difference it has made in our community, and I urge our local leaders to recognize the importance of this program.

With support, we can ensure IL-EATS will grow in its effectiveness and impact in the years to come. Thank you to everyone involved in this program. Your dedication and compassion are truly making a difference.

— Heather Edwards, executive director, DeKalb County Community Gardens

Growing the local food system

Farmers Rising is a nonprofit dedicated to building local food systems through farmer training and consumer education. We are also an IL-EATS lead agency chosen to administer the program in Boone and Winnebago counties.

As mentioned in the June 7 editorial, our farmers, community partners and organization have been adversely affected by IL-EATS’ slow rollout and funding delays. Since the first week in May, however, we’ve purchased and paid for $65,000 of fresh food, including 4,700 dozen eggs and 4,200 pounds of chicken, yogurt, sour cream, cornmeal and fresh vegetables, all grown by small, independent farmers in northern Illinois. Our farmers’ cash flow has improved dramatically, and our pantry partners are thrilled.

One pantry volunteer shared that our food deliveries are saving the pantry thousands of dollars in food purchases, which it can now spend on other important household items such as laundry detergent and toiletries. Another stated their clients regularly ask for dairy products and how wonderful it feels to finally be able to fulfill those requests.

Week by week, more products are becoming available, farmer experiences are improving, and more and more Illinois-grown food is flowing from local farms to food-insecure families.

IL-EATS is growing the local food system in tangible ways, in real time. I look forward to the Tribune Editorial Board’s follow-up editorial that focuses less on Illinois politics and instead celebrates the transformative, long-term impacts that come about by investing in our socially disadvantaged farmers and local food economies.

— Jackie de Batista, executive director, Farmers Rising

Bill would harm hemp industry

We are writing on behalf of hundreds of Illinois hemp businesses that have invested tens of millions of dollars to provide safe, quality products to millions of people and pets throughout the state. We support the Tribune Editorial Board’s call for regulation of hemp products and businesses to protect the health and safety of children and consumers (“Hemp can get you high. Illinois needs to better protect its minors.” June 2). We appreciate the editorial’s recognition that adult consumers want access to our products and that there is room for compromise, ensuring safety without killing Illinois businesses and thousands of jobs in a vibrant and diverse industry that includes many people of color and immigrants.

As operators of reputable hemp businesses, our main focus is on hemp products, and we take the legitimacy of the hemp industry seriously. We take safety precautions such as careful testing and labeling and limiting sales to consumers older than 21. And, for the last several years, many of us have been advocating for strict regulation and taxation of intoxicating hemp products, as well as prudent health and safety measures for non-intoxicating CBD products. We worked with legislators and put forward comprehensive legislation to ensure the safe manufacture and sale of our products while leveling the competitive playing field between hemp and licensed cannabis.

Unfortunately, for two spring legislative sessions now, rather than being included in fair negotiations, we have been brought to the table only to be told that all our businesses — and many others — would be banned. Most recently, as House Bill 4293 was pushed through the Illinois Senate at the last minute, our concerns were ignored, even when we correctly pointed out that this bill is so broad and punitive that it would effectively ban the sale of all manufactured hemp products, including non-intoxicating CBD lotions, cosmetics and pet products.

H.B. 4293 would destroy the hemp industry and ignore the needs of millions of hemp consumers in Illinois. It would shutter storefronts, as well as manufacturing and distribution facilities across the state. At the same time, it does nothing to address unsafe hemp products being shipped across our border, favoring our out-of-state competitors. But more than any other interest group, H.B. 4293 favors multibillion-dollar cannabis companies. This approach is neither fair nor effective.

We stand ready to negotiate a solution based on facts rather than fearmongering. We urge state officials to act as honest brokers in this process.

— Jennifer Weiss, Cubbington’s Cabinet, Chicago; DJ Loeffelholz, River Bluff Cannabis, East Dubuque, Illinois; and Anna Ward, Stoney Branch Farms, Rushville, Illinois

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