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Three Peoria organizations are finding ways to lead in the fight against food insecurity

Peorians shopping at Market 309
Down River Farm's Facebook
Peorians shopping at Market 309

As food insecurity continues to affect many families across Peoria, local organizations are trying to do their part by finding innovative solutions to combat this complicated issue.

Peoria Grown has been a leader in this fight ever since its founding in 2018 as part of Senator Weaver’s community leadership initiative. Peoria Grown founder Julie Eliathamby and her team have been working on not only tackling food insecurity, but the related health crisis that has plagued these communities for years.

Julie Eliathamby, founder of Peoria Grown
Jody Holtz
Julie Eliathamby, founder of Peoria Grown

“For a long time everyone looked at food insecurity as hunger … but the issue has changed … it’s more about getting our families the right type of food because in Peoria, we are not short of food … we are getting food into people's hands, but it's just that we need to give them the right type of food, because right now just giving families any type of food and saying this is good enough, it’s not helping them …we’ve kind of created another issue, which is the health issue,” said Eliathamby.

Peoria Grown has expanded and received a lot of attention since 2018, most recently being selected to beBuild Peoria's 2022-2023 community project. The nonprofits Market 309 program brings healthy, affordable food and grocery items into the areas that need it most. Currently, the team runs two markets: one at Logan Recreation Center at 1414 S Livingston St, and the other at North Valley Commons at 1203 NE Perry Ave.

“We started in January of 2021 with only 10 produce. Within three months, we started creeping up … and now we carry over 80 different produces and different varieties of grocery items, and all of it stemmed from the families telling us what to bring in,” said Eliathamby.

While the organization's Market 309 program has had much success within these communities, Eliathamby is constantly thinking of new ways to grow and reach even more people. She said a goal the nonprofit has for this upcoming year is to work more closely with other partners, such as local farms.

“I know that a lot of local farmers would love to work with us, it’s just figuring out some of the logistics of price point for us. For a small nonprofit like us, we do not have a lot of cash…to be able to buy at a higher cost for produce…so that may not make it very enticing to sell to a small group like us because you won’t make as much of a margin,” explains Eliathamby.

While cash flow is a struggle for many nonprofits and small businesses, this didn’t stop Down River Farm owner Evan Barry from thinking of a unique way to make both parties happy, while working to support a much larger cause.

A peak inside a greenhouse at Down River Farm
Jody Holtz
A peak inside a greenhouse at Down River Farm

Down River Farm is an organic vegetable farm located in East Peoria. Barry began selling at the Peoria Riverfront Market 2018, and has since grown a large following of devoted customers who support sustainable farming practices, and delicious organic produce. He says him and Eliathamby have been wanting to work with each other for about 3 years now.

Down River Farm's stand at the Peoria Riverfront Market
Down River Farm's Facebook
Down River Farm's stand at the Peoria Riverfront Market

“I saw what she was doing and I was super excited by it…it’s totally taken off now, but I reached out mostly because I was really inspired by her cooking classes she was putting on…we’ve been talking since then on how we can start working together,” explains Barry.

Financially, running a small business also isn’t easy. Barry said as much as he would love to be in a place where he could donate his produce directly to Peoria Grown, that wasn’t the reality of where his business was. Thus, he thought of a mutual aid partnership, inspired by another farmer, Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms.

“You can purchase and contribute shares of produce that will go directly to Peoria Grown to be distributed at either their Market 309, or their cooking classes,” Barry said.

This model brings the greater Peoria community into the equation, allowing them to personally have a hand in helping alleviate the food insecurity and health crisis, while also allowing Barry’s farm to retain its profit to be able to continue providing top notch produce at affordable prices.

“As farmers serving a community, we need to be mindful of the fact that we all are a community. The weakest links, the strongest links, the rich, the poor, whatever color you are, we all need to be taking care of and watching out for everybody else, no matter what zip code you come from…you can nit pick away at peoples approaches, especially non profits approaches, all day long, but at the end of the day I think it’s the difference between somebody doing something and somebody doing nothing,” said Barry.

Evan Barry, owner of Down River Farm

While he said he’s certainly not naïve enough to believe he could feed all of Peoria, this is a start and an opportunity to get the ball rolling.

However, Market 309 isn’t the only market in town providing food and trying to help people stretch their dollar.

The Peoria Riverfront Market has just begun its 19th season as a popular attraction for Peorians to attend on Saturday mornings. They have offered a LINK matching program since 2012. LINK is the Illinois name for SNAP, which stands for supplemental nutrition assistance program.

Sharon Gramm is the executive director of the Peoria Riverfront Association. She says anyone who receives LINK benefits can bring their card to the market and swipe it in exchange for wooden tokens, which can be used at any of the food vendors. However, there’s an added bonus for those who choose to shop at the market.

Peoria Riverfront Market's Facebook

“This year, we’re excited to say we can match up to 25 dollars. So if you swipe your link card for 25 dollars you’ll be given 25 dollars in tokens, and then we will give an additional 25 dollars in matching money that can be spent on fruit and vegetables only,” explains Gramm.

Not only does this provide a direct way for families to stretch their budget and eat healthy foods, but it also supports all the local farmers at the market, like Barry.

However, Gramm estimates only about 20 to 40 people per Saturday take advantage of this LINK matching program at the market. And according to the American Community Survey (ACS), conducted each year by the U.S. Census Bureau, 10.9 thousand households in Peoria County received SNAP benefits at some point between 2015 and 2019. So why aren’t more people taking advantage of the program?

Gramm says she doesn’t see any outright barriers to how the market is set up.

“I think we have a good location…there’s no perfect spot…there’s bus service that’s not too far away…I hope that everyone feels welcome in the space. I think that we have a very diverse group of both vendors and customers,” said Gramm.

It’s also possible that many folks just don’t know about this program in general. Gramm says in the past OSF has helped by passing out flyers to food banks and churches.

“I think probably the best advertising is word of mouth and people share their experiences and how helpful it is to them,” Gramm said.

Lack of transportation, the frequency of the market, and the perception that farmers markets are more of a treat-yourself type of activity rather than a real, sustainable way to support the community and grocery shop are all other factors Barry said could be at play when considering the small number of people utilizing the program.

At the end of the day, Gramm says she can see the real impact this program has on families.

“We do see a lot of customers use it. They’re very appreciative of the matching program, and they are appreciative that it helps their dollars go farther, and it allows them to spend money on healthy and nutritious produce,” said Gramm.

In addition to this matching program, The Riverfront Market has also started a partnership with Peoria Grown.

“We have asked our vendors to donate any unsold produce at the end of the market that maybe they don’t have an opportunity to sell elsewhere…back to the Riverfront Market, and then we have a representative from Peoria Grown stop and pick that up,” Gramm explains.

This trio of organizations working together to uplift, support, and help each other reaches far into the community and makes a real difference for families who have too often been neglected. While their work is profound for their size and is an incredible start, they can’t carry this fight alone, and it will take much larger community outreach and support from other Peorians to solve the problem of food insecurity once and for all.

You can contribute to Down River Farm’s and Peoria Grown’s mutual aid here.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.