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Why a local food system has yet to take hold in central Illinois

Emily Bollinger
If all we grow now is corn and soy, can we even grow food crops here? Well, that's actually not all that we grow. And in the state that ranks third in the nation for the number of farmers markets, it seems that the answer is yes.

Today on Food Trek, host Tory Dahlhoff gives us the first of a two-part episode that dives into the potential of building a local food system in Central Illinois and reviews a bit of the history of why, in a place with such great soil, a strong local food system has yet to take hold.

Throughout this Food Trek, we will talk a lot about developing local food systems in central Illinois. So maybe we should actually define that term.

So let’s Google it.

According to Community-Wealth.org, “a local food system is a collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management in order to enhance the environmental, economic and social health of a particular area.”

It sounds a bit lofty, maybe even abstract. But who wouldn't benefit from a system like that? One that can meet the needs of people, the economy and the environment? It's definitely worth a good, close look.

But if all we grow is corn and soy, can we even grow food crops here? Well, that's actually not all that we grow. And in the state that ranks third in the nation for the number of farmers markets, it seems that the answer is yes.

Why is it that those foods that we see at the farmers market still feel like such a novelty?

“We have some amazing soil. We can actually, in the state of Illinois, real almost anything except for citrus and avocados and bananas,” said Raghela Scavuzzo, associate director of food systems development at the Illinois Farm Bureau and the executive director of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association.

There are over 3,600 specialty crop farms around the state, Scavuzzo said.

What are specialty crops? “Your fruits, your vegetables, and your flowers and your herbs, your tomatoes. Anything that is more like actually what you find in the produce aisle of your grocery store,” she said.

Wo why then don't we already have a so-called local food system? Well, being a system, it's not just being able to grow food. Remember, it's also “assessing distribution, consumption and waste management.”

You may be asking: Isn't Illinois a leader in food processing? Well, yes, it is. But not the type of processing that meets the goals of local food systems – ones that, again, enhance the environmental, economic, and social health of a particular area.

Why is Illinois so entrenched in large-scale international farm and food industries? Well, it’s because it was designed that way. In the book, “The Heartland: An American History,” author and University of Illinois history professor Kristin Hoganson digs into the agricultural history of Illinois. And in that book, she talks a lot about how intentionally global our Illinois agriculture was oriented from the very incorporation of this place into the United States.

“Even smaller scale farmers who moved to the wet prairies of Illinois never intended to be completely self-sufficient, right? They wanted to be connected from the start to global economies. They were interested in selling the things they produced the wider markets, both domestic markets and international markets. And from the very beginning, they were interested in having access to global markets as consumers,” Hoganson said.

And our modern approach to farming and food production obviously has continued down that path. In 2020, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Illinois farmers planted 11 million acres of corn and 10 million acres of soybeans, with a good portion of that being used for exports. And it's because those crops are prolific in many ways. They produce an enormous amount of fuel, animal feed, and the basic ingredients for a plethora of processed foods and industrial products.

But for all it's worth in the global marketplace, it doesn’t directly feed us here in central Illinois.

“So part of our vision for Illinois is that Illinois would feed itself. Right now, we import 95% of the food that we eat here, despite the fact that we have 23 million acres of agriculture. And that’s really, it's not resilient. It's not safe. It's not food secure,” said Liz Stelk, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. Her group is one of many working on local food systems development in Illinois, a system that she says can benefit the land and climate, farmers, eaters and local economies.

“So one of the things that we do in working with both local food and sustainable agriculture is understanding that one of the best ways that we can build healthy soil is also to diversify what we grow here,” Stelk said. “And one way that we can diversify what we grow here is that we build the infrastructure that would support more local food production.”

But is it even possible to diversify an agricultural system that was designed from the beginning to prioritize global industries with just a few single crops?

“Corn and soy, I think are always going to be a prominent production here in Illinois. We have really good soil to grow corn and soy. And it is needed throughout the world, not just here,” Scavuzzo said.

If corn and soy are here to stay and utilizing the majority of our farmland, can we still get to a place where local food systems gain a substantial foothold?

“Can we get there? Yes. Are we on the cusp of it? Yes. It's just looking at it in a different way,” Scavuzzo said.

And on the next episode, we will continue looking at it differently when our conversation with Scavuzzo and others continues. So stay tuned.

Tory Dahlhoff is a freelance reporter based at WCBU. He's also the host of the food and farming podcast Food Trek.