Chicago: A Food Desert

Dear reader, did you know that 96% of the fruits, vegetables and meat eaten in Illinois are produced in another state or another country?

It’s true.  We are a state of corn and soy producers (which I’m sure you already knew, if you’ve been outside Chicago).  And that corn and soy is not eaten by humans in its raw form: it is either feed corn – a more fibrous, bitter corn than the corn that we eat, which is called sweet corn – which goes to feed cows, chickens, and even factory-farmed fish. Or it is corn and soy which must be shipped and processed before human consumption, making countless steps through processors and distributors and being trucked around the country until it gets back to us in the form of Cheetos or as dextrose, malodextrin and margarine in our favorite processed foods.  According to Cornfree Canada, dextrose, a corn derivative, is likely to be found in the following food items: cold cuts, cream, ice cream, yogurt, canned soup, processed cheese, artificial sweetener, and nuts.  When you start doing research into the industrial food system, you’ll start to wonder if any foods are safe from corn derivatives!

Okay, so what does this mean for us, in Illinois?  It means that we, instead of supporting our local economy, are sending all of our money to large processing and distribution corporations in other states.  Our farmers are making very little money from their crops, since we buy this processed food very cheaply (cheapness is its sole attractive quality), and the money we pay as consumers needs to support the processing and distribution of our food.  AND we are poisoning our bodies with corn and soy, whether we eat them directly as processed foods or indirectly as fatty meat, grown sick with cramped conditions and a diet that cattle and chickens did not evolve on.  It’s not uncommon on the South Side, where I work with high school students at Green Youth Farm, for 15 and 16-year old students to have ulcers from eating Flamin Hot Cheetos – some of them tell me that they eat 5 bags of Flamin Hots a day.

Okay, so clearly there’s a problem with what we eat and how it gets to our tables.  But how do we fix it?

That’s where local, fresh foods come in.  When we buy local, fresh food straight from our farmers or grow our own fresh, local produce, we’re supporting local economies, reducing fossil fuel use, and buying food that doesn’t give us ulcers or diabetes.  Depending on who our farmer is, we may also be giving individuals from marginalized populations new opportunities.  For example, both the North Lawndale Employment Network’s Sweet Beginnings and the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Boot Camp program provide job training and employment for current or past convicts in beekeeping and urban agriculture, respectively.  A co-worker of mine at Windy City Harvest, a graduate of the Boot Camp garden program, has said that he avoided the gang violence that killed two of his friends in the past 6 months because he was involved in urban agriculture.  There are lots of awesome programs like this in Chicago trying to use local, sustainable agriculture to inspire youth and employ marginalized individuals.  So local agriculture is good for our communities.

Plus, if we grow the food ourselves, we’re also getting exercise, building community, and reconnecting with the land.  We’re learning practical skills to help us save money on produce, be independent of large agro-corporations, and get the freshest, most nutritious produce possible.  So what’s to lose?

Luckily, a bill was passed last August in the Illinois Senate that mandates local food for state agencies and organizations which receive significant state funding.  This bill requires that state agencies purchase at least 20% of their food locally by 2020 and that state-funded institutions, such as schools, purchase at least 10% of their food locally by 2020.   This is a big victory for our communities, our health, and our environment, but bill drafter (and farmer) Johari Cole says that in order to meet that quota, Illinois needs about 5,000 more farmers.  Find out more about this bill here.

At Wild Roots, we’re helping this local food movement and the Northwestern community by growing our own food sustainably, taking strain off our air, water, and earth and educating our peers.  Good work, everyone, and keep it up!



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