June 15, 2012

Food Works’ focus is local sustainable food systems

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A new tenant at Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Illinois Small Business Incubator is working to develop local sustainable food systems, which in turn will enhance the region’s economy.

Food Works incorporated in 2008 to address community food security and regional food systems development in Southern Illinois, according to the company’s executive director, Dayna Conner.  The University is providing assistance in a variety of ways.

“Sustainability to us means economic, ecological and community well-being and resilience,” Connor said.  “In order to accomplish our mission, we have established these priorities:  increase the amount of food grown and consumed in the region; ensure food producers have the support and education they need; improve access to delicious, healthful and fresh local food for all residents and to help people in our communities learn the relationship between food, our bodies and our world.”

The Food Works founders initiated an economic analysis of the southern 23 counties in Illinois and the results of that study will be the focus of an event set for June 19 at the Dunn-Richmond Economic Development Center.  Ken Meter, a nationally known economist and president of the Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis, will discuss the findings of his study, “Southern Illinois Local Farm and Food Economy.”  Food Works and the Illinois Coalition for Community Services organized the study, with guidance from a steering committee that included leaders from throughout the region.

The event brings together invited farmers, economic and community development leaders, policy-makers, educators and others with an interest in the regional farm and food economy.  Sponsors of the local food and farm economy speaking tour events include SIU Carbondale, Connect SI Foundation, Farm Credit Services of Illinois, the Illinois Coalition for Community Services and Food Works.

University Housing’s “Chef Bill” Connors will prepare a luncheon featuring locally grown foods.  Connors has provided valuable assistance and inspiration for Food Works, Conner said, noting that University Housing procures more than 30 percent of the food it uses within a 250-mile radius of the University.

Connors serves on the Regional Food System Development Steering Committee for Food Works.

“This conference is another step in reaching the goal of building a regional food system for the lower 23 counties of Southern Illinois.  This system will build the economy and lead to the development of more jobs,” Connors said.

Food Works also created a local food documentary highlighting the history and future prospects for agriculture in the area.   Editing is now under way, with release anticipated later this year.  It also created a 2010 documentary film series to educate consumers about food system issues as well as an ongoing farmer-training program and support network.

The primary focus since 2011 for Food Works has been on farmer training and support using the Southern Illinois Farming Beginnings one-year farmer training program and the Southern Illinois Farming Network.  The Illinois Departments of Agriculture and Commerce and Economic Opportunity, along with the USDA and Farm Aid, provided funding.  Food Works became part of the Small Business Incubator program in January.

Food Works and Conner have also worked with others at SIU Carbondale to expand the “farm to fork” concept in the region.  Alan Walters, associate professor of Plant and Soil Science, has served on the farmer advisory committee for Food Works since 2010 and “provided invaluable advisement for the development of our farmer training and support programs,” Conner said. 

Leslie Duram, professor and chair of the geography and environmental resources department at the University, has assisted Food Works and its mission, too. 

As faculty coordinator for geography internships, Duram places students at various sites each semester. This spring, Duram connected Laura Williams with Food Works, providing her with valuable “real world” experience while assisting the organization and helping build connections between the University and the local community, Duram said.

Duram noted that Williams, a graduate student in geography and environmental resources from Fairfield, works with her at LOGIC (Local Organic Gardening Initiative of Carbondale) on the organic gardens near the vermiculture site on Pleasant Hill Road.  A campus Sustainability Award funds Williams’ efforts to organize student volunteers and manage the garden that in turn provides produce for Lentz Dining Hall.  Duram said future plans call for creating a “Farm Stand” on campus to sell LOGIC produce.

“Food Works is a wonderful resource in our region as it provides networking opportunities for new farmers.  In our area, there are so many opportunities for smaller scale farming operations and a lot of people want to go into farming, but they might not know how to go about it,” Duram said.  “Food Works fills that gap between desire and action as it provides information and mentoring for new farmers.  All together, this will help build a vibrant local food system for Southern Illinois.  I’m so happy to be part of this important initiative.”

According to the USDA, the 23 southernmost Illinois counties import most of the food used annually, about $1.7 billion out of $1.8 billion.

“If we could capture only 10 percent of what we spend on imported food by growing it here, we could keep about $170 million circulating more times in the local economy.  But a 2009 report by the governor-appointed Illinois Local Food Farms and Jobs Task Force indicates that not having enough farmers is the No. 1 one obstacle to producing more food in Illinois for local consumption,” Conner said.

Food Works currently employs three people at its office in the Dunn-Richmond Economic Development Center at 150 E. Pleasant Hill Road in Carbondale. To learn more, visit the website at http://eatsouthernillinois.org/, email dayna@eatsouthernillinois.org or call 618/319-0542.