Last Thursday, February 15th, Illinois Stewardship Alliance wrapped up their Annual Membership Meeting with 65 farmers, eater, and local food advocates from across the state in attendance. The Annual Meeting is an opportunity for members and stakeholders to come together, learn, share, network, and inform the organization’s future work. This year attendees heard how the soil beneath their feet can clean our drinking water and fight climate change, the latest trends in Buy Fresh Buy Local, and how state and federal decision-makers will influence the food on our plates in the coming year.
The event kicked off with a keynote speech from Woody Woodruff, the Alliance’s own conservation associate. The presentation featured a snapshot of his journeys abroad and close to home—from his time in the Peace Corp in the Caribbean and West Africa, to his work with local 4-H chapters and Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Illinois, to the practices he’s adopted on his own farm—and how his experiences have shaped his views on conservation and agriculture. The key themes running through the presentation included climate change, the need to adapt, and the importance of community. The presentation culminated with the discussion of his recent cancer diagnosis and how it has affected his understanding of not just conservation practices on commodity crop farms, but the larger food production system as a whole. This includes the need to transition farming to a more natural system that works with nature, focuses on both annual and perennial production together, and emphasizes long-term soil health and community health over short term profits.
Following the keynote, participants enjoyed a locally-sourced lunch, and the Alliance’s Executive Director, Liz Moran Stelk, presented this year’s Golden Beet Awards. Winners were selected in 5 categories and represent some of the most innovative and impactful local food projects from across the state.
During the afternoon, attendees had the opportunity to hear from the Alliance’s Communication Director, Molly Gleason, about the organization’s past and future local food programming. Gleason presented on the history of the Alliance’s Buy Fresh Buy Local Chapter, the impact and effectiveness of the current local food programs, and data and trends from a survey of members as well as from research on farmers markets, grocery stores, and restaurants. The presentation ended with the Alliance’s 4-step plan to revamp their local food programming for the future in order to better address the needs of their members and stakeholders. The steps included:
- Expand the current Buy Fresh Buy Local Directory statewide
- Develop a new wholesale directory for restaurants and institutional buyers
- Expand the Eat Local Challenge marketing campaign statewide.
- Pause event-based programs like the Local Flavors Farm-to-Table Restaurant Series in order better realize the Alliance’s statewide mission.
Finally, the Alliance’s Policy Associate Rebecca Osland introduced the organization’s state and federal policy priorities for 2018. The priorities are determined through our on-the-ground work with members and local food stakeholders in our local food and conservation programs. This year’s state policy priorities include:
- Legalizing industrial hemp: Legalization will provide Illinois farmers with an additional cash crop and conservation tool to add to their production rotations. Other states like Kentucky have already put into place such laws.
- Pushing forward legislation for a dollar-for-dollar match SNAP (food stamp) purchases at Farmers Market. This legislation would double the purchasing power of low income families to buy fresh fruits and vegetables while also keeping money in the hands of small farmers and local communities.
- Fully funding the Soil & Water Conservation Districts: While the SWCD’s were fully funded by the Illinois legislature in last year’s state budget, the governor withheld over half of that funding. The Alliance will continue to push for full funding in order to protect Illinois waters for drinking and recreational use, as well as prevent the degradation of Illinois soils and wildlife habitats for the future.
Osland also discussed the importance of the Alliance’s federal policy work with 2018 being a Federal Farm Bill year. Osland explained that the Farm Bill is the massive piece of legislation that comes around once every 4 years and which determines funding for everything from food stamps to crop insurance. With 3 members of the House Ag Committee from Illinois, farmers and eaters across the state have the unique opportunity to help set priorities in this influential piece of legislation. The Alliance re-capped their 2018 Farm Bill priorities, focusing on the Local FARMS Act, and announced their grassroots “Dishing on the Farm Bill” campaign to help stakeholders across Illinois make their voice heard for local food and sustainable agriculture.
The full policy presentation can be found here and more information about the Dishing on the Farm Bill Campaign can be found here.
The underlying themes of the day revolved around building community and member ownership of the work and mission to create sustainable food systems. The Alliance provided opportunities for members to become more involved, from providing feedback on the local food programs, volunteering to host Dishing on the Farm Bill dinner parties, signing up to volunteer at the Alliance’s Old Capitol Farmers Market in Springfield, and writing letters to federal legislators. Throughout the day attendees had the opportunity to share ideas, make connections with local food advocates across the state, and further strengthen the local food network in Illinois.
The next opportunity for Alliance members and interested parties to meet in person will be at the Alliance’s Annual Local Food Lobby Day on April 26th in Springfield.
Thank you to the generous support of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance Board for making this event possible and the tireless work of our members to continue to build local food systems from the ground up.