Local Food Lobby Day : The Inside Story

By: Molly Gleason

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We had been preparing for this day within the Illinois Stewardship Alliance office for several months. Handouts on key pieces of legislation were drawn up, seed packets ordered to give as gifts to the legislators, lobby training materials assembled. Wes spent late nights in the office making final arrangements and insuring that all of the details were in line. Dee dropped her normal administrative duties in order to make copies and put the finishing touches on the attendee packets, and all of the ISA staff showed up early on the big day to make sure everything was in place. This was our one day of the year where we had a chance to make a show of strength for local food and sustainable agriculture. Our one day to make a change in the way legislators view local food policies.

This was not my first time at Local Food Lobby Day. As the Illinois Stewardship Alliance Outreach Coordinator, I attended last year in order to take pictures and update social media with a play-by-play of the day’s events. This year, my role expanded. This year I was also a team leader, which meant I would be leading a small group of other new lobbyists and I would be on the front lines of the action. Gulp. I had never really lobbied before, and I was a little bit nervous.

The troops rolled into the State Library, our pre-determined meeting place, around 10 a.m. on March 25th. They came from across the state and from different walks of life, farmers market managers and grocery store staff to stay-at-home moms and full-time beekeepers, but they gathered in the State Library to support a common goal: creating a better future through local food and agriculture. The morning began with a de-briefing by Illinois Stewardship Alliance executive director Wes King on several key pieces of local food legislation that have been working their way through the House of Representatives with varying degrees of opposition. In a nutshell, our goal was to promote legislation that would support raw milk freedom, prevent seed libraries across Illinois from being shut down, re-form food co-op law to encourage their growth throughout the state, enable low income families to shop at farmers markets with SNAP benefits, and expand cottage food law to allow more locally grown and processed products to enter the marketplace. Hands raised, questions were asked, and notes were taken as we better informed ourselves on the legislation, the arguments for and against, and how best to present our new-found knowledge.

Before lunch we broke into small groups and planned our strategy for catching our representatives. We needed to find them before they headed into session, or track them down after their committee meetings. Some of them would be in their offices and others would be unavailable and it was a game of chance and of skill to map out the most strategic route. We researched their offices, marked them on our floor plans, and honed our stories into a well-tuned pitch. Armed with seed packets and magnets and various handouts all to give to our representatives, we marched to the capitol. It was hard not to feel like a CIA operative on secret mission- to infiltrate the capitol building, track down as many legislators as possible, and deliver important documents into the right hands….before its too late.

Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as we approached the office of our first representative, and although we ended up having to drop off our materials and present our story to his legislative assistant, I felt like we had done something good. We spent the next few hours weaving through the capitol, discussing local food legislation with other curious legislative assistants, and leaving them with our pre-assembled packets and a little extra knowledge to pass on. When we finally reached our state State Senator who happened to be available, our small group was feeling confident and assertive and had no trouble speaking about the policies we hoped he would support. He shook our hands and listened as we told our stories and how we felt that each policy would make a difference to the future of Illinois, and he couldn’t help but agree with us after we made our case.

At the end of the day, I walked back to the office feeling empowered and knowing we had completed an enormous accomplishment. Over 40 people had come together and we had made our voices heard, and our senators and representatives had listened. I was proud of myself and of every single person who had taken time out of their day to help give fair local food policies a fighting chance, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Margaret Mead’s famous quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

You still have time to make your voice heard as well! Local food and farm policies still need all the help they can get. Check out the the legislation below and call your state representative to let him or her know that you want them to support these policies. YOU can make a difference.

  • Seed Law Exemption for Seed Libraries – As the presence of seed libraries in Illinois grows, ISA is looking into legislation that would clarify our existing seed laws to make clear that they do not apply to non-for-profit community seed libraries. The purpose is to prevent the kind of situation that has cropped up in other states like Pennsylvania where state regulators have shut down small seed libraries housed in public libraries. To check out existing seed libraries in Illinois, visit seedlibraries.weebly.com
  • Cottage Food – Representative Mike Tryon will be introducing legislation aimed at expanding Illinois’ Cottage Food Law. For those who don’t know about it, Illinois’ Cottage Food law was created in 2011, changing the state food safety laws to allow farmers and entrepreneurs to make certain non-potentially hazardous foods such as baked good, jams and jellies in their home kitchens to sell at farmers markets. Prior to that it was illegal to make any food products in a home kitchen to sell to the public for commercial purposes.  When it was originally passed it was one of only a dozen or so laws, now there are 42 states that have some sort of cottage food law with many of them being more liberal than Illinois’ narrow law. Representative Tryon will be introducing legislation this year that aims to expand the narrow list of allowed cottage food products and to allow those products to be sold on-farm and through CSA’s in addition to at farmers markets.
  • Co-op Law – Last year the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation that made some small but important updates to the Illinois law that governs food/grocery type co-ops like Common Ground; increasing the level of financial support co-op members can contribute to their co-op. The original law in Illinois governing food co-op was written in the early 1900’s and had not been updated since!  Over the summer, fall and winter, since that bill was passed and signed into law, a coalition of organizations, current co-ops and co-ops in formation began working together to develop legislation to re-write the whole law governing food/grocery type co-ops in Illinois.
  • “Double-up Bucks” SNAP Incentives – Following years of successful SNAP (Food Stamp) incentive programs at farmers markets across the country, like the Urbana Market on the Square’s, where each dollar a SNAP recipient use at a farmers market would be matched at some level usually 1 to 1; the 2014 Farm Bill created a new SNAP incentive grant program, known as the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program. The down side of the new federal program is that it requires the market or organization applying for the grant to provide a 50% match. Here in Illinois a coalition led by the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity, the American Heart Association and the Experimental Station in Chicago has formed in order to try and get a small state SNAP incentive program created that could provide grants to serve as the full or partial match to prospective federal funding. That coalition is most likely going to be introducing legislation this spring for that very purpose!