NORMAL — Farmers growing food for human consumption may qualify to sell their products directly to local food banks, helping the food-insecure, thanks to a federal grant through the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

In a March press conference, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced nearly $29 million in USDA funds for the Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement.

That agreement led to the creation of the Illinois Equitable Access Towards Sustainable Systems program, called IL-EATS.

In total, 15 lead providers across the state are centrally managing local agencies in their surrounding counties to facilitate purchasing from farmers and distributing to the food-insecure, said Aimee Beam, executive director of Midwest Food Bank in Normal. 

Midwest Food Bank Executive Director Aimee Beam checks out a supply of vegetables on Friday in Normal.

CLAY JACKSON, THE PANTAGRAPH

Of the $28.8 million, Midwest Food Bank of Normal and its sister organization in Peoria, both of which are lead providers, will receive around $2.5 million each, Beam said.

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MFB Peoria will oversee the west side of the state, while MFB Normal is responsible for the east side, Beam said. But they both have contacts spanning the entirety of Illinois, from the Mississippi River to Indiana and from Carbondale to Chicago, she said. 

“This allows us to both bolster the ag community and help the food-insecure community at the same time,” Beam said. “It’s genius.”

Though this year’s growing season is yet to start, Beam said farmers and ranchers are ready to make non-seasonal staples such as meat and potatoes available, Beam said, and food banks should be collecting and distributing those products in the coming days and weeks.

How the program works

According to the University of Illinois Extension, IL-EATS has certain requirements for what food banks can buy, and what certifications growers need in order to sell it, based on USDA guidelines.

Fruit and vegetable growers participating in the program must meet food safety requirements. Several classes for certifications are made available through the Extension online and via Zoom.

Farmers and ranchers selling animal products must comply with federal and state requirements, and that information is available through the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

Midwest Food Bank, along with several other such entities across the state, has received a share of nearly $30 million from the USDA to work with disadvantaged farmers to get their products to people experiencing food insecurity.

CLAY JACKSON, THE PANTAGRAPH

Once food producers are certified and qualify, lead agencies and food banks will work with the producers to establish a market to purchase goods at a “fair market value” determined by the Illinois Department of Human Services

Then, on the 15th of the following month, lead agencies will submit expense reports to the state for reimbursement, Beam said. For instance, MFB will submit its report for items purchased in March on April 15, she said. 

“We submit the bills from the farmers, and they’ll (the state) pay us back,” Beam said. 

The program began in March and is slated to run through the next fiscal year, or June 2025, Beam said, adding she believes the program will be extended in the next budget.

Building bridges

Because a project of this magnitude takes time to develop, details concerning the program and how farmers can connect with food banks was not immediately clear after the governor’s March press conference, Beam said. 

However, Midwest Food Bank, with the help of the University of Illinois Extension, was ready to start accepting applications from farmers by mid-April, Beam said. 

At the beginning of the month, the list of farmers, ranchers and growers lined up to supply MFB and its agencies with fresh, locally grown food was hovering around 30, Beam said. 

“That list is growing, and we’re going to continue to build a database of qualified farmers, ranchers and growers,” she said. 

IL-EATS qualifications

Socially disadvantaged farmers may qualify for IL-EATS if they fall under one of the following categories:

American Indian or Alaska NativeAsianNative Hawaiian or other Pacific IslanderBlack or African AmericanLatine/o/aRefugeeLGBTQ+VeteranFemale business ownerGreater than 50 miles (or 30 minutes) to nearest distribution point (farmers market or market opportunity)Qualify for benefits based on income (low socioeconomic status)Person with disabilitiesNew farmer or rancher (USDA definition is working less than 10 years)

Any farmer who meets the criteria set forth by IL-EATS as a “socially disadvantaged grower/producer” is welcome to apply for the program, she said. 

According to the IL-EATS webpage, those qualifications include, but are not limited to: minority or non-white farmers and growers, female business owners, LGBTQ farmers and growers, military veterans, farmers and growers of low-socioeconomic status, and persons with disabilities. 

Producers may also qualify based on their proximity to large markets, or because their county is considered highly vulnerable for businesses as determined by the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index. Defined by the CDC, social vulnerability refers to how greatly communities may need support before, during or after a disaster.

Highly vulnerable counties

Farmers, ranchers and growers in the following counties may qualify for IL-EATS:

ChampaignColesCookDouglasFayetteFranklinJacksonJeffersonKaneKankakeeKnoxLakeLawrenceMaconMarionMassacMorganPeoriaPerryRock IslandSalineSt. ClairStephensonUnionVermilionWarrenWayneWinnebago

Connecting these farmers with people who often lack access to fresh produce and meats aligns directly with MFB’s mission, Beam said. 

“We’re going to be able to take that money — or those products, rather — and get them to the food-insecure community free of charge, which was already Midwest Food Bank’s business model,” she said. “We always did that.” 

The database of farmers will be shared with other lead agencies, Beam said, which they can use, alongside MFB’s business model, to connect those experiencing food insecurity with local farmers in hopes of creating long-term relationships. 

Midwest Food Bank along, along with several other such entities across the state, has received a share of nearly $30 million from the USDA to work with disadvantaged farmers to get their products to people experiencing food insecurity.

CLAY JACKSON, THE PANTAGRAPH

Beam said she hopes projects like this, which she described as a “shot in the arm,” can lead to a landscape in which such connections between growers and consumers are so strong that middle-men like MFB are no longer needed. 

“I would love it if we could figure out a way to serve people so well and create such a robust infrastructure of food that eliminated food scarcity — that, and reduced the cost of food for the food-insecure community — so that our services were not needed,” Beam said. 

Rich resources

IL-EATS is not the first grant program designed to bolster Illinois farmers who grow food for human consumption, said State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria. 

Last year’s state budget allocated around $1.8 million from the Illinois Department of Agriculture to the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, he noted in a Zoom interview with The Pantagraph.

Koehler

COURTESY OF DAVE KOEHLER

The alliance then passed out grants to 19 local food projects, which used the funds to “strengthen the local food system and increase access to agricultural products grown and raised in Illinois,” according to their website.

Those funds helped farmers get their goods to local markets “to help fill some of the gaps that exist in all kinds of communities,” Koehler said.

Midwest Food Bank Executive Director Aimee Beam speaks on Friday about a program to provide locally produced foods to people experiencing food insecurity. 

CLAY JACKSON, THE PANTAGRAPH

The program was so popular, and demand for those funds was so much, that the total amount requested statewide at the time was nearly $23 million, or 10 times the allotted amount, he said.

In response, the senator is trying to extend that program into this year’s budget. It will be a challenge, he said, as budget talks are always tight. 

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“Illinois has such a rich … resource of the land that we have,” Koehler said, referencing the fact that Illinois is continually a leading producer of corn and soybeans. “But a lot of farmers also plant specialty crops,” he said. 

Diversifying Illinois agricultural production for human consumption only makes sense, Koehler said. 

“There’s no sense in us taking and driving, you know, fruits and vegetables from 2,000 miles away … having that be our source of food when we have this richness of agricultural … fertility here in Illinois, let’s use it,” he said. 

Ready to deliver

Farmers, growers and ranchers are ready to start sending their produce to food banks, and lead agencies like MFB are chomping at the bit to get started. 

“We’re setting up our infrastructure,” Beam said. “We’re ready to buy, and we hope in the next few weeks, we’re really going to be able to just start doing that and helping a lot of people.”

To apply, farmers, ranchers and growers can find their local agencies on the Extension’s website for IL-EATS.

Or, for those local to Central Illinois, they can email Beam at abeam@midwestfoodbank.org.

Executive director Aimee Beam talks about food and toy distribution at Midwest Food Bank

Clay Jackson

Contact D. Jack Alkire at (309)820-3275. 

Twitter: @d_jack_alkire

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