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Growing More Farmers

by Worldchanging Chicago local blogger, Jacob Wheeler

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I attended the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council’s (CFPAC) second annual Chicago Food Summit on Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center, and I came away inspired, motivated and with a satisfied stomach that convinced me how good organic, locally-grown food can taste.

Vella Café served a memorable lunch that included Moroccan chicken stew with cous cous, leek and butternut squash gratin, sautéed kale with cider syrup, a winter green salad and Red Hen Bakery bread. The organic vegetables, fruit and dairy came from Goodness Greeness, and Growing Power donated the pasture-raised poultry.)

Before we split into afternoon breakout sessions to brainstorm ways to improve food access, funding and economic sustainability and food sustainability in Chicago, we heard during the morning hours from a host of speakers who have accomplished impressive feats, published groundbreaking studies or crystallized the question of why food is such an important issue for people everywhere.

We must “change the food system or die,? proclaimed Kendall Thu, an associate professor of anthropology at Northern Illinois University. The way food is gathered, grown and distributed shapes a human society, he explained. And we are in the middle of a food revolution because our society currently boasts the lowest percentage of farmers in our history. As farmers reach retirement age and as their farming culture fades away, in come multinational food conglomerates to replace them, and that only increases the discrepancy between haves and have-nots in terms of food access, health, economic and social justice with respect to food.

That is why the question of food access is such a moving issue, seconded Daniel Block, an associate professor of geography at Chicago State University. There are stores to buy food in every community, but the real question is what type of food. Under the regional food access landscape he included supermarkets, fast food, restaurants, food pantries and farmer’s markets. There are more grocery store chains and farmer’s markets in affluent areas that provide healthy food, but finding products in many minority areas that aren’t overloaded with sugar and trans-fats can be a dilemma.

Though the term “food desert? was unpopular across the board at the Chicago Food Summit, the basic problem it describes was addressed. Ilsa Flanagan, the director of sustainable development at LaSalle Bank, which is owned by a holding company in the Netherlands that encourages investment in food sustainability, says it’s not always obvious to people that a bank would care about this problem. But a healthy population is a good investment.

Take, for example, Humboldt Park, a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. Miguel Angel Morales, the program manager for Community Organizing for Obesity Prevention in Humboldt Park (CO-OP) presented statistics revealing that 35 percent of adults in this neighborhood are obese compared to 25 percent in Chicago and nationwide. That number skyrockets to a whopping 62 percent when we are talking about children under the age of 12 in Humboldt Park. The culprits are a shortage of fresh produce, too much fast food, fat and sugar, a knowledge deficit -- and too little time to shop for quality food elsewhere in the city. Morales is coordinating efforts to increase the consumption of fresh produce and promoting physical activity in East Humboldt Park.

Will Allen, the executive director of Growing Power, summed up the problem: we don’t just lack food … we lack farmers. There are tens of thousands of vacant lots in Chicago that with a little fertilizer could easily yield health and local food solutions. “We need to grow farmers,? said Allen.

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