Evanston is home to one of the most successful farmers markets in the U.S. Since its launch in 1975, our outdoor market has evolved into an anchor for community-based commerce and culture. 

Nationwide, the proliferation of farmers markets responds to consumers’ desire to buy food directly from farmers. High-volume wholesale channels—restaurants, grocery stores, schools, universities and other institutions—now seek farmers-market-type foods.  

The strongest food trend in decades is spurring development of local food systems—regional-scale supply networks complementing the global supply chain.   All levels of government are responding in myriad ways that promote local food demand, access, production and infrastructure.

Since 2007, the Illinois General Assembly has enacted about a dozen food system laws.   Most focus on removing barriers impeding farmers and other entrepreneurs from supplying unmet consumer demand for products sourced from nearby farms, gardens and food-related businesses.  Public health regulations for farmers markets are being streamlined and opportunities increased for small-scale food producers to sell goods and/or use compostable materials as soil nutrients.

Evanston has provided legislative leadership. Last spring, state rep. Robyn Gabel sponsored a composting law. Her predecessor, Julie Hamos, wrote two laws leading to the creation of the Illinois Local Food Farms and Jobs Council.

Formed in 2010, the Council is a community-led advisory body directed by 35 gubernatorial appointees. Its statutory mission is to “facilitate the growth of an Illinois-based local farm and food product economy that revitalizes rural and urban communities, promotes healthy eating…and supports economic growth through making local farm or food products available to all Illinois citizens.”

Heavy-handed state actions are stifling this experiment in community empowerment.  Despite a lack of funding, staff, or Quinn Administration support, the Council earned the 2012 Illinois Public Health Association of the year award.    

 Last spring, the Governor’s Office dismissed the executive committee and appointed a new slate of directors.  Several had previously resigned. Others had asked not to serve.

The Council has “failed to measure up to the expectations of the statewide coalition of citizens” who had envisioned “a state-sanctioned engine for grassroots democracy and community self-determination.”

That’s a key finding from a new report by former Council co-president Johari Cole-Kweli and me.

 “Building on Seven Years of Grassroots Accomplishments: A New Approach for Community Development in Illinois [hyperlink]” challenges Gov. Pat Quinn to provide leadership through implementation of a law embodying the governing philosophy that has animated his career.

“Illinois can become a local food system leader,” the report shows, “through state-agency collaboration with Council efforts to 1) align community assets; 2) improve delivery of public resources; 3) address local needs; 4) create jobs that cannot be outsourced, and; 5) grow Main Street economies from Chicago to Cairo.”

The Council’s next meeting is Tuesday Nov. 12 in Bloomington.  

#     #    #

Bob Heuer is a public policy/marketing strategist. He represents the Evanston/Skokie School Dist. 65/202 Legislative Committee on the Illinois Local Food Farms Jobs Council.