Posted on October 04, 2012 10:21 AM
Supporting Sustainable Local Food Systems
Illinois has some of the most fertile soils in the country. While Illinois farmers grow only six percent of the produce consumed in the state, they could grow much more. If local food production were increased in the seven counties of metropolitan Chicago, it could create over 5,000 jobs and generate $6.5 billion of economic activity per year, according to an Iowa State University study.
The demand for local food is building. Over the last ten years, demand for local food has grown 260 percent in the region according to GO TO 2040, and recent surveys from the National Restaurant Associationshow that three-quarters of Americans care that their food is grown locally. Fresh local produce isn’t just for farmers’ markets and restaurants known for incorporating local ingredients anymore. Meijer, Wal-Mart, and other major retailers and restaurant chains are also committing to sell locally grown food. Despite the significant increase in demand, however, residents continue to import food from other states and countries, and $26 billion in food revenue leaves northeastern Illinois every year based on calculations using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) included support for local food systems as one of just 12 recommendation areas in the GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan. To help implement this recommendation, CMAP created a microsite at www.cmap.illinois.gov/food with a variety of resources to help elected officials, planners, and economic development professionals strengthen local food systems in their communities. The microsite also includes an engaging video (viewable below) about the importance of local food as it travels from the farm to the table.
The microsite describes local food systems, including local and national trends, benefits, and supportive actions that local governments can take. The site has a range of resources, such as CMAP's new two-part guide to help local governments incorporate local food in their comprehensive plans and ordinances, and a printable brochure that can be distributed as an educational outreach tool. The site also highlights a number of initiatives that support sustainable local food systems here in the region, with more to come through CMAP’s Local Technical Assistance (LTA) program. For example, CMAP has been working with a group of nonprofit, public, and private partners throughout Lake County to explore potential for a more sustainable local food system in the county.
Though each of us participates in the food system, few consider the economic impact of their choices on the region and its communities. In local food systems, the diverse factors of food production, processing, marketing, distribution, access, consumption, and waste/resource recovery (composting) all have regional and local implications. By locally producing more of the food consumed, money stays in the region and supports local economies, businesses, and entrepreneurs. The three pillars of sustainability -- our local, regional, and global economies; our land, water, and living resources; and our communities, including public health and social connections -- all derive economic, environmental, and quality-of-life benefits from local food systems.
Keeps Money in the State
According to GO TO 2040, Illinois residents spend $48 billion annually on food, nearly all of which (an estimated $46 billion) leaves the state. Purchasing food that is grown locally can keep much of that money in the region. A 20-percent increase in local food production and purchasing could yield an estimated $2.5 billion in economic activity in the region and $20 to 30 billion in the state. The Chicago metropolitan region is well-positioned to meet some of the demand for direct-to-consumer local food sales thanks to its fertile soils and over 800,000 acres of agricultural land.
Increases Farm Income and Jobs
A report from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity citing information from a U.S. Department of Agriculture Illinois Farm Report shows that farmers’ revenue for fresh market vegetables surpass revenue for commodity crops by 5 to 50 times. Labor income and jobs follow a similar trend: Fruit and vegetable production has the potential to generate three to seven times more jobs and farm income than corn and soybean production.
Supports Local Business
Purchasing food grown, processed, distributed, and sold locally supports one’s neighbors and helps strengthen local economies by employing people, generating income, and circulating dollars within one’s communities. Every dollar given to a local farmer can be spent at other businesses owned by members of the community.
Provides Fresh, High-Quality Food
When produce travels only 100 to 250 miles from farm to table rather than across the country or the world, it takes less time and is much fresher when it arrives. Fruits and vegetables shipped from distant farms can spend up to two weeks in transit, while farmers’ market produce is often picked just a day or two prior. Produce that travels from farm to marketplace to table can lose some of its nutritional value as more time passes, according to Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Minimizing transportation and processing increases the freshness, flavor, and nutrient retention of produce. Better access to fresh, high-quality food also has positive impacts on health – healthy food decreases the risk of obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases.
Preservation of farmland
Strengthening a local food system can make preservation of existing farmland more economically viable. Over the past several decades, the region has lost around 16,000 acres of farmland per year and currently has about 800,000 acres remaining, according to GO TO 2040. As development has occurred, large blocks of farmland have been fragmented, and the production of commodity crops or livestock has become more difficult. Increasing demand for local foods like vegetables, which can more easily be produced on small or scattered sites, provides aspiring farmers with more production options. In addition to preserving an economic asset, farmland preservation also helps to maintain the rural character of much of our region and perpetuate agriculture as a thriving economic activity.
The public sector is responding to market trends and the potential benefits of a more robust local food system through public policies and regulations that support local food systems, preserve agricultural land, and improve access to healthy, locally produced food. Challenges remain, however, and there is a significant role for counties and other local governments to provide support by addressing regulations, land access, facilities, coordination, and supportive market conditions. Visit www.cmap.illinois.gov/food to learn more about local food systems and how to support them.