March 01, 2010

Chef Bill named to Food, Farms and Jobs Council

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- William Connors, a familiar and popular fixture at Southern Illinois University Carbondale with his colorful chef ‘s apparel and his delicious cuisine, will now contribute his expertise to benefit the state’s farm economy.

Best known as Chef Bill, Connors is part of a new group created to help the Illinois local farm and food products industry grow and flourish. Gov. Pat Quinn recently appointed Connors to a three-year term on the 35-person Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Council. The group will hold its first meeting Wednesday, March 3, in Springfield.

“I’m incredibly honored to be chosen for this committee,” Connors said. “Illinois is one of the biggest agricultural states in the nation but most of the food we eat is imported. We spend billions of dollars on food from other states or countries. We want to promote Illinois foods and farms and bring jobs to the state. This council is going to work to do that. We’re also going to evaluate ways to encourage Illinois farmers to convert from growing commodities to growing food.”

Connors has been cooking since the age of 15 and he’s passionate about it. He completed his chef’s training at Washburne Culinary Institute in Chicago. Then, he served as a chef for country clubs and hotels in the “Windy City” before coming to SIUC as chef for University Housing’s Residence Hall Dining in 1995.

Efforts that date to fall 2006 by a coalition of Illinois residents eventually led to the new council. They recognized consumer demand for local farm products and the financial benefits of keeping the $48 billion in food dollars Illinoisans spend annually within Illinois. Quinn signed the “Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Act” (House Bill 3990) in August 2009 and the legislation mandated creation of the Local Food, Farms and Jobs Council to work with state agencies, businesses, organizations and residents to expand the local farm and food market.

At that time, state officials estimated 96 percent of the fruits, vegetables and meat Illinoisans consume comes from other states or countries. Connors and his fellow committee members are out to change that. Enhancing the food industry within the state translates into more Illinois jobs, officials believe.

Spurring growth in the local agricultural economy isn’t a new concept for Connors. At SIUC, he’s shown a longstanding commitment to the local food industry and to sustainability in dining. For instance, his initial goal in recent years was ensuring that at least 20 percent of the food products Residence Hall Dining uses come from within Illinois or a 250-mile radius of the campus. While pleased to find that already 28 percent of the products were local, that’s not good enough in his view.

“Now we’re shooting for 40 percent. That’s a pretty high goal,” Connors said.

He said students now dine on pork and beef raised at the University and University Housing purchases as much seasonal local produce from area farmers as possible. He also works with students in an organic garden that provides produce for the dining halls. He wants those trends to continue and he’s anxious to work with the other members of the Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Council to develop local networks and bring food farming back to Illinois, creating jobs in the process.

“Chef Bill has been a longtime advocate of using local and organic foods in our dining halls. The work he has done in building relationships with academic departments, community agencies and local advocates has resulted in our residents enjoying high-quality, locally grown foods. In addition, his passion for the subject allows Chef Bill to educate students about the importance and the impact of using local foods. The council will certainly benefit from Bill’s expertise and University Housing is lucky to have him as a member of our team,” said Julie Payne Kirchmeier, director of University Housing.