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COVID-19 pandemic brings more attention to food equity and access issues

Troy Wetter of IDHS, Nick Davis from Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton's office, and Jackie Sambersky of the Illinois Department of Agriculture were among the speakers at last month's Live Local Food Conference hosted by the Illinois Farm Bureau at the Embassy Suites Hotel in East Peoria.

The COVID-19 pandemic doesn't have many upsides. But Illinois Department of Agriculture Secretary Jerry Costello II said he's noticed at least one: people are more interested in where their food comes from. That's provided an opportunity for local food producers.

"In this instant gratification society that we all live in, you're used to walking into a grocery store and getting whatever you want off the shelf having such and such product with such and such label. And all of a sudden, that didn't happen in in the United States. People were shocked," he said.

The upside to that is the creation of new relationships, from local meat processors, to farmers' markets, and restaurants working more with local farmers.

"Those relationships or something, possibly part of it wouldn't have happened and wouldn't have been there to cultivate had we not gone through this period of stress and strain," Costello said.

Nick Davis, the community engagement specialist with Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton's office, said the pandemic has highlighted fractures in food systems, by exposing people who were already struggling with food access, and farmers who are struggling to access markets. But he said it's also created opportunities.

"There is a little bit of a silver lining to this pandemic, whereas there's more of a focus on food equity, and who can access who has access to it and who doesn't," Davis said.

Troy Wetter is emergency food manager for the Illinois Department of Human Services. He started that position in January 2020.

"I literally went from learning to right into the fire of COVID," said Wetter.

He said COVID-19 helped push the SNAP food assistance program forward, and has forced DHS to take another look at how the entire food system is working.

"With the way the food delivery slowed down, food disappeared off the shelf, then the pantries, the shelters, the soup kitchens all became very much in demand," he said. "We had more show up in that year between March 2020, and June of 2021 than we've ever seen. It was undeniably one of those things that was very eye opening."

Davis said the lieutenant governor's office is looking at SNAP and food access not only from a consumer's point of view, but a producer's, too.

"Producers and sellers are trying to make sure, or trying to figure out, what are the things they need to do to be able to qualify for SNAP benefits," Davis said. "I think that a lot of times when we think about SNAP, we're thinking about the consumers being able to purchase healthy food, but then there are a lot of people on the supplier end trying to figure out how to get certified for SNAP."

Jackie Sambursky, bureau chief of marketing, promotions, and grants at IDOA, said SNAP and LINK card acceptance at farmers' markets has made a difference in accessing local foods.

"We are very well aware of the benefits of that program. And we're really excited to be able to help farmers market managers also access those funds and provide those services for their vendors as well," she said.

That's not to say there are no challenges with state food access programs. One attendee at last month's Live Local Food conference in East Peoria said one of the two grocery stores in her county recently stopped accepting SNAP because of cost and implementation issues.

"The SNAP program has always been something that's somewhat extensive to get established, however, that things have been made easier now with the advent of bringing in EBT processing, as well as there are certain things going on with the snap link customers themselves, getting them to come into it," Sambursky said.

She noted a $500,000 appropriation for the "Healthy Local Food Incentive" in the FY 2023 state budget may also help.

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