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Economic Development Fri Feb 19 2010

A Real Solution to the Food Desert Problem

Food deserts have become a concern du jour our city's political establishment, as the Big Blue Beast from Bentonville uses their existence as an excuse to bigfoot the retail market in Chicagoland. In previous posts I've argued that while food deserts are a problem, inviting in a corporate actor that tends to drive down wages and liquidate competitors (thus potentially just displacing food deserts) not to mention send profits back out of state isn't necessarily the best solution. Why not use some of that $70-million-for-the-Olympic-bid style muscle to raise funds for a program to encourage local entrepreneurs to step up and fill the need in the market, with proper quality and wage controls?

Turns out, according to Urban Farm Hub, Philadelphia has just done that--and fairly cheaply:

Brianna Sandoval of The Food Trust, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, discussed the need for understanding the needs of food retailers. In the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a $120 million funding pool created by public-private partnership provides incentives to operators to open shops in areas where they might not otherwise have done business. Businesses have to be located in low or moderate income census tracts and areas considered underserved based on size of businesses and proximity from other stores.

Programs also aim to improve access to healthy food in existing stores. In one case study, a local store increased sales from five types of fruits and vegetables to 20 types, and moved the fresh food to become the centerpiece of the renovated store. In another example, small refrigeration units for fresh fruit salads were added to a network of 40 corner stores. This change also resulted in new jobs as entrepreneurs moved in to provide the packing and distribution of the fruit salads.

All of these programs demonstrate the financial pay-offs of integrating community food systems into a city or region's economic development plans.

These are the types of solutions that would win the support and involvement of local residents--not to mention that they would likely come from locals if they had a real opportunity to participate in governing their city. Instead, they are just encouraged to beg for whatever meager jobs megacorporations are willing to dole out (that is, when those megacorporations aren't just fabricating that support).

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Rachel Benoit / February 21, 2010 5:46 AM

This sounds like an excellent program. Where do we start?

Debbie Hillman / February 21, 2010 1:32 PM

In fact, last year Illinois appropriated $10 million for a Fresh Food Fund. This was based on the work of the Illinois Food Marketing Task Force, which worked directly with the Philadelphia Food Trust. However, no authorization was included with the appropriation. That is where the Fresh Food Fund stands now -- working out the details of who administers the Fund, what kinds of projects would be eligible, how to leverage additional dollars so that the program can serve all "underserved areas" around the state.

It may be eye-opening for Chicago-area residents to know that rural areas are some of the poorest areas in Illinois and some of the most underserved areas in the state. As economist Ken Meter has been saying for years, "there is no food in farm country" -- at least not in the Midwest. Imagine having to drive 30 miles to reach a grocery store.

State Senator Jacqueline Collins (Chicago) is the sponsor of the resolution supporting the creation of a Task Force to make recommendations regarding the Fresh Food Fund that will not only bring fresh food to "underserved areas" throughout the state, but also address the causes underlying such economic disinvestment. The resolution passed the State Senate last year and is currently in the House, where Rep. William Davis (Chicago) is the chief sponsor.

Both Sen. Collins and Rep. Davis are working with a team of Illinois citizens (including myself) to describe the multi-faceted projects that will have the most impact for taxpayer dollars. As writer Ramsin Cannon points out, this is the Philadelphia model, which has proved so successful that there is now a proposal in Congress to create a National Fresh Food Financing Initiative. In Illinois the new Office of Urban Assistance in the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will probably be responsible for administering this fund.

Chicago Food Summit. If you want to get the most up-to-date information on the Fresh Food Fund, readers might think of attending the 5th annual "food summit" sponsored by the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council. The summit is on March 12 this year and features a break-out group on the Fresh Food Fund. Details about the summit and the agenda can be found at: (the summit will be held at the UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt).

Advocates for Urban Agriculture. If people are interested in urban farming in Chicago, the "go to" group is Advocates for Urban Agriculture. There are regular meetings, active committees, active list-serv, and website:

Illinois Local Food and Farms Coalition. Statewide, people can join the list-serv of the Illinois Local Food and Farms Coalition, which is the urban-rural coalition that wrote and passed the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Acts (2007 and 2009). The 2009 bill created a new state body (Illinois Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Council) commissioned and empowered to grow an Illinois-based local farm and food economy. The first meeting of the new Council is March 3 in Springfield. All Council meetings are open meetings. See the report that is the basis of the legislation and that contains the strategic plan for localizing the Illinois food system:

Illinois Local Food and Farms Coalition list-serv:

Debbie Hillman, Co-Coordinator
Illinois Local Food & Farms Coalition
Chair, Evanston Food Policy Council

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Parents Still Steaming, but About More Than Just Boilers

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