DeKalb County Opinion

Guest view: The power of a local food system

We thank the Illinois General Assembly for renewing its commitment to the Illinois Local Food Infrastructure Grant. Thanks to lawmakers’ support, farmers like me can feed even more folks through better infrastructure to scale production and manage our operations effectively. This support is a turnaround for rural farm communities like mine and life-changing for people living in urban and rural food deserts.

At the same time, the IL-EATS program, funded by the USDA and administered by the state’s Department of Agriculture, provides a direct market for produce grown by farmers. Together, LFIG and IL-EATS empower hundreds of Illinois family farmers to feed families without access to fresh, healthy, locally grown food. We receive a living wage for our products, which we then aggregate, sort and distribute to families in need at no charge, making a significant impact on our community.

It’s making a powerful impact.

Since March, 32 family farmers I work with in Down at the Farms across central Illinois have grown and distributed 52,425 pounds of produce, meat, dairy, eggs and grain to hundreds of families.

Last week, a recipient of our weekly food delivery shared that our efforts dramatically improved their health. The heartfelt note explained, “Without sounding cliché, you kind of changed my life. My health, for sure.”

This week, a Native American chef from Chicago traveled several hours to our farm to buy fresh local foods for his community in the city. Tomorrow, we are hosting a delegation from South America who are keen to learn about our transformative local food system. Next week, I meet with a new farmer eager to nourish his community and contribute to something larger than himself.

These interactions speak volumes about the power of a local food system. They go beyond transactions; they are relationships built on trust, good faith, reciprocal actions, and our social and ethical responsibilities to each other.

As my friend and fellow Illinoisan, Professor John Ikerd, has said, “Sustainability is ultimately an ethical issue, for there is no financial reason to do something for future generations other than it’s the right thing to do.”

We need public-private partnerships to create a sustainable, equitable food system for ourselves and the next generation.

While our needs are modest, they are crucial – we need the ability to offset costs for communities in need without the family farmer going out of business.

The ripple effects of the IL-EATS and LFIG benefit everyone. Strengthening our local food system will make healthier, nutritious food more affordable and accessible to everyone – in restaurants, grocery stores, nursing homes, schools and beyond. The return on investment for local food farmers and the whole system is generational and enormous.

You can be proud to know you live in a state where family farmers are dedicated to nurturing the soil, caring for our communities, and collaboratively serving others. Congress now can solidify the future of the USDA program that funds IL-EATS by passing the Expanding Access to Local Foods Act of 2024 (S. 3982).

Together, these initiatives catapult Illinois to a place where family farmers are staying in business, supporting their communities, and confidently facing the future.

• Marty Travis is a seventh-generation food farmer and co-founder of Down at the Farms LLC in Fairbury, Illinois.