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Every fall, organizers of the Evanston Farmers Market designate a day when non-profit groups are invited to set up tables and interact with shoppers. At one of the booths at the 2008 Community Day sat Evanston Food Policy Council co-founder Debbie Hillman.

In recent years, Ms. Hillman’s efforts to “re-localize” the Evanston food economy morphed into a statewide coalition. In 2007 State Representative Julie Hamos was chief sponsor of legislation that authorized creation of the Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force. Its charge was to recommend how state government can support development of local food systems.

That September morning, another Evanston activist, Jean Saunders, stopped by the EFPC table, joining Ms. Hillman and this writer, who is chair of the District 65 and 202 Joint Legislative Task Force, a PTA Council committee of community members as well as representatives from both school boards, administrations and teachers unions.

Pending state and federal legislation became the hook to involve PTAs in the food issue.

In Springfield, Rep. Hamos was planning to introduce a bill to support the findings of the local food task force. Public schools are among the state-sponsored institutions that could be beneficiaries of efforts to encourage an increased supply of Illinois grown foods. The Illinois economy could benefit from farmers meeting the demand for freshly-picked produce that retains its nutritional value.

In Washington, Congress was preparing to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. The law determines federal guidelines and funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program. The federal “free and reduced lunch” program for low-income students subsidizes about 75 percent of the 4,000 meals prepared at Evanston Township High School and served to both high school and District 65 students each day.

At its Oct. 2008 meeting, the Legislative Task Force explored the question of how to synthesize complicated issues in a resolution that local PTAs and the school boards would adopt. District 202 School Board member Gretchen Livingston identified the unifying principle by saying that both laws could help improve school meals long-term. Bill Stafford, District 202’s chief financa officer, said the resolution process itself could spur “creative approaches for the short-term.”

In a meeting of the Evanston Food Policy Council meeting later that year, widespread dissatisfaction with lunch programs was expressed, along with information about several food-related initiatives at both District 65 schools and the high school.

A partnership between the Joint Legislative Task Force and the Evanston Food Policy Council was born that night. Debbie Hillman recalls that the EFPC was “excited to learn about the coalescing of energy spearheaded by the Legislative Task Force.”

Nearly a year ago, 50 parents turned out for a school lunch program co-sponsored by EFPC and PTA Council. School officials said the nutritional value of the meal programs is improving as both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) and food manufacturers respond to the demands of various constituencies. A new constituency was formed that night – the PTA Council healthy community subcommittee. (See listserv at http:///groups.google.com/group/evanston-health?hl=en)

Last summer, Springfield passed the Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Act and the two school districts adopted the Joint Legislative Task Force’s “Healthy Communities” resolution. On the first day of school this year, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky met with a parent-led community coalition to discuss reforms to the Child Nutrition Act.

 “The initial idea of federal feeding programs was to help farmers and not necessarily provide the most nutritious meals,” Ms. Schakowsky said. “The intent was never about ensuring that parents can easily learn the nutritional content of meals, let alone that they have the knowledge to be effective advocates for better school meal programs,” she addd. 

PTA Council invited Ms. Schakowsky to a meeting to hear from school nutritionists about economic constraints that impede their ability to serve higher quality food. Ms. Schakowsky says she intends to advocate a cost-saving measure in new legislation that would eliminate “reduced” lunch discounts as well as a farm-to-school competitive grant program that would incentivize school-community collaborations.

Both District 65 and District 202 have experimented with local sourcing of such products as apples. The hassle of dealing with multiple vendors is among the many challenges complicating efforts by institutions to procure local food. Both public policy and market forces are stimulating formation of regional-scale food supply chains that shorten the geographic distance between farm and fork. If the economics can be worked out, these “local” complements to the global food supply chain could help school lunch programs reduce their dependence on highly-processed foods.

While the commercial side of local-food-system development encompasses the cost and supply of nutritious food, the non-commercial side focuses on community development benefits such as self-reliance and food literacy.

A PTA Council meeting in May revealed that nine Dist. 65 schools have edible gardens in various stages of creation. A few month later, District 65 School Board and JLTF member Kim Weaver told a EFPC meeting that these disparate activities could benefit from a paid coordinator. 

“I’d like to see a garden at every school integrated into the curriculum,” she told about 30 people gathered at Wild Tree Café for the meeting. “We have a really great start. Now we need to get some funding behind it,” she added.

The school-garden coordinator issue is on the agenda of the agenda of the Jan. 11 joint District 65/District 202 joint Board meeting. Ms. Weaver says she plans to recommend that the City Council /School liaison committee look into school gardens as a community-wide initiative.