Toward a More Just and Sustainable Food System

Photo courtesy of Ed Menacho

Choosing what we eat has become a form of resistance. Many of us feel we’re doing what we should be doing: choosing organic whenever possible, supporting our local farmers by buying directly from them at farmers’ markets and shunning plastics in favor of reusable bags or food packaging.

        All of these actions are important, but if we want to see bigger changes in our food system, changes that can benefit our whole community from farmers to those living in food desserts, we need to expand our engagement. Individuals changes, or personal choice when it comes to buying organic, local and sustainable food aren’t going to amount to change on a systemic level, according to Kristin Lawless, author of Formerly Known As Food. To move the needle, larger groups need to band together and demand change.

Local Advocacy

Nick Lucas, programs manager for Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA), a 2,000-plus member coalition of urban farms, community and school gardens, individuals and businesses working to support and expand sustainable agriculture in the Chicago region, believes that as citizens, we have more power than we think to create change, and we’re much stronger together than individually. Becoming informed citizens is important, which is one of the reasons he encourages those that want to get involved at the local level to consider becoming an urban agriculture ward ambassador, volunteers in each of Chicago’s 50 wards that become knowledgeable representatives supporting sustainable urban agriculture in their community and can effectively promote positive urban agriculture policy.

        “We encourage citizens to get involved with us and our many community partners to advocate for sound local and state policies that promote sustainable food systems,” says Lucas. The urban agriculture ward ambassadors initiative is just one way a Chicagoan can become more civically engaged by building relationships with their local elected leaders and represent the interests of a flourishing local food system, according to Lucas.

State-Level Advocacy

At the state level, advocating and working to create real, just and sustainable change in our food system is what drives Liz Moran Stelk, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, and its 400-plus member organization, which she calls farmer-informed and consumer-powered. As members, farmers, chefs, food lovers, students and families come together to use both their economic and political power to help shape the food system, Stelk says. Providing access to local, healthy and affordable food is just one of several initiatives upon which the organization tirelessly works.

        She also agrees that our individual choices alone are not enough to create real and lasting change when it comes to food access and changing policy. For real change to happen, we need to make it easy for consumers to find healthy food, but also to go beyond and insist that policy makers advocate for legislation that supports sustainable agriculture.

        Last year, with the help of the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance worked to protect the Healthy Local Food Incentives Fund, a statewide fund to match produce purchases using SNAP, or food stamps, at farmers’ markets to help make healthier food accessible to all Illinoisans. Currently, $1 million hangs in the balance as Illinois could match yet-to-be-appropriated funds to the Healthy Local Food Incentive Fund because the state could apply for a federal match that could be used at farmers’ markets across the state to match SNAP sales.

        “This means your SNAP dollars can go that much further and that could potentially mean a million dollars that is going into the local farm economy,” says Stelk. It also means those in our communities that need it most can afford fresh fruits and vegetables, she notes.

Supporting Our Farmers

As organic produce is increasing in demand, big box stores are adding them to their merchandising mix. Many citizens are finding it easier to support the organic produce movement by buying their produce anywhere organic is sold. While it’s a step in the right direction and the purchasing power of large retailers can help shift farming production from conventional to organic, Lucas continues to encourage citizens to reconsider how they wield their buying power.

        “Those big-box stores do have some organic produce, but buying there is divesting from your local food system,” says Lucas, who notes that Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmers’ market sales have dropped in the last few years due to a shift of organic produce buying to these businesses. “What’s the only way to know for sure you’re supporting local? Think of the hand that you put your money in—is it a farmer’s through a CSA or farmers’ market? Are you at a food co-op? If you’re not buying locally, you just can’t be sure where it’s really coming from or where your money is going.”

        Working directly with farmers is important to Stelk and her members, which is why in addition to the other work they’re planning to focus on this year, they plan to continue to work with American Farmland Trust and other organizations to bring the Fall Cover for Spring Savings program to Illinois this year. Cover crops are an important conservation tool for farmers because they naturally add organic matter to the soil, prevent nutrient runoff and keep our waterways clean. They help build healthy ecosystems for surrounding wildlife and over time, they help farmers reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers and chemicals. To help offset the costs of planting cover crops and to encourage farmers to adopt them, Stelk and her army of supporters want Illinois to replicate an Iowa program that has been successfully providing $5 per acre for crop insurance premiums for every acre covered.

         For those interested in learning how to help advocate for food policy changes, the organization is hosting a Local Food Lobby Day on April 10 in Springfield. Local food advocates and farmers from across the state will receive lobbying training, a legislative update on the important bills and have the opportunity to meet and educate their legislators on the importance of local food systems to our health, communities, and environment, while advocating for positive policy solutions that support local farms and wholesome food access for all.

        To create the kind of broad-based systemic change that is needed, Stelk is quick to point out and reiterate what the experts remind us often: it’s not enough to just take a one-time action. “You have got to join an organization like the Illinois Stewardship Alliance that is trying to build a long-term, powerful alternative voice in the legislature and in policy for sustainable agriculture and local food,” she says.

For more information, visit the Illinois Stewardship Alliance at and Advocates for Urban Agriculture at

Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based writer interested in sustainability issues. Find her at



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