RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Buy Local Food

In Illinois, It’s the Law

The media is full of “Best of 2009” stories, including the usual stuff — wars, economic disaster, marital breakups and so forth. Every listmaker has a list — best NASCAR story, best baseball story, best corporate citizen. And they’ve also given us a fair share of lists beginning with “most,” as in “most powerful men/women of 2009,” “most glamorous,” and everything “most” except “most overrated.”

We know that the stories that will impact our lives for years to come don’t fall into those inky categories. In fact, this year’s lists sounds like a list of most inevitable and predictable stuff. Economic collapse based on fraud? It happens every couple of decades, maybe more. Obama’s foray into Afghanistan? Ho hum. We knew he’d be sending troops somewhere. If the new troops go in with the idea that they’ll really make changes, help the Afghan population pull itself and its government together — now that would be a story!

But there are always a few back-page stories that could really make a difference in our lives, and my “best” list is short, with just one nominee: passage of the law that creates the Illinois Local Food, Farm, and Jobs Task Force.

If you haven’t heard of this, don’t be too hard on yourself. The bill passed in June and didn’t even make the “locavore” blogs until August. Besides the economic meltdown and the Madoff scandal, it was farmers’ market season. All the foodies were swept away by the huge response to farmers’ marketing in the midst of an economic downturn.

But here are the groundbreaking details: Just like in your state, most of the food consumed in Illinois is imported from other states and nations. At the same time, the production of the vast prairie state is exported, but not as food. Corn becomes corn oil, syrup and ethanol. Soybeans become biodiesel. People have forgotten that farmers once produced food.

The work that Illinois has to do is extremely important for the survival of the planet. Study after study affirms that we can’t keep importing all the food we eat. There’s the petroleum problem, and the carbon dioxide problem and here’s a surprise: The people that live in those banana republics want to grow food for themselves, not us. And if they’re raising it for us they want a fair price.

But this story is important for another reason: As the home state of Barack Obama, the Illinois effort will set a template for your state, too.

There was, of course, a local food system in Illinois for most of history. The Native American population knew how to use the plants and animals that grew on the land. They raised the three sisters — corn, squash and beans — but they also hunted and gathered. For the most part, modern farmers consider indigenous plants as weeds, but we will do well to know what they were used for.

After European settlement, the population used the native stuff — like pokeweed, lamb’s quarters, and purslane, but also raised their own, familiar crops. My family roots are in Illinois, and my father raised sweet peas for the Del Monte cannery in northern Illinois. The plant canned asparagus, too, but we didn’t grow it and it seemed, to me, a hilarious crop. Every spring, I rode my horse to a neighbor’s to see the asparagus spears sticking up in their field.

Until the 1980s, the south side of Chicago was given over to food processing. The stockyards, with all its peripheral shipping and cooking businesses, closed in 1971 but other processors, like the Campbell’s soup plant with its soup can water tower, kept on cooking. Oscar Mayer was independent until 1981, then sold to a larger corporation. The big consolidation process had begun and by the time NAFTA passed, it was pretty easy for big businesses with no local roots to ship their manufacturing plants overseas.

But I digress. According to the Illinois task force, the state still has 76,000 farms and at least 950 food manufacturers. 80% of the land is farmland, but only 4% of the food consumed in the state is raised there. Hospitals, museums, restaurants, grocery stores, corporate kitchens, schools, and universities cannot find local foods in any quantity, and many communities have no grocery stores and rely on big-box stores and quick shops.

The legislation will set up a state label and certification and requires state agencies to purchase at least 20% percent of their food from Illinois by 2020, even if they have to pay more for it. Public schools will be especially encouraged to buy local, which means that they will have to cook it themselves or there will have to be a network of processors to handle it, like the old network of Del Monte plants. The task force estimates that local food sales will keep $30 billion in the state that would have left if the old system continued.

I don’t need to point out that the $30 billion will go a long way toward re-building what’s lost, and building it better, more energy efficient, and putting out better products. It won’t be long until the state realizes it needs new university classes, new vocational classes in high schools, and a statewide effort to re-learn how to cook.

So keep your eyes on Illinois, dear reader. Their story is #1 for 2009.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2010

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