Monday, May 3, 2010

Local food council develops big plans

GALESBURG — The Knox County Board has officially established a local food council that will work to strengthen and develop local food networks.

The 15-member council will become a non-profit foundation and will work with local growers to help them reach markets for their products and add value to them. County officials hope that over time growth in local food production could create hundreds of sustainable jobs.

A new state law will require state-funded institutions to obtain part of their food supply from Illinois growers. The local food council hopes to exploit the opportunity the legislation creates.

Most fruit and vegetables consumed in Illinois come from outside the state but the Illinois Local Food, Farms and Jobs Public Act is aimed at reversing that trend.

The new legislation will require institutions that receive substantial state funding, such as colleges, nursing homes and schools, to buy at least 10 percent of their food from local growers by 2020.

State-run agencies, including prisons, would be required to buy 20 percent of their food locally by that date. In both cases, the food would be bought with a 10 percent premium.

But beyond supplying produce to state-funded institutions, there’s also a booming market for locally grown food in supermarkets and at farmers’ markets.

The Knox County Local Food Council includes Jerry Moore of Loffredo Fresh Produce in Rock Island among its members.

Loffredo is a major food wholesaler, supplying Walmart, a number of national restaurant chains and cafeterias at places like Caterpillar, John Deere and Western Illinois University.

Moore will bring contacts and knowledge to the food council as well as a potentially lucrative market for Knox County produce. He has already offered to solve one potential problem the food council faces by offering the use of a refrigerated trailer to local growers that will improve storage options for growers.

Gary Tomlin, the county’s public information officer and economic development coordinator, said the food council hopes eventually to establish what he called a consolidator. The consolidator would act as a kind of cooperative to allow growers to pool their resources and possibly hold weekly auctions of produce.

“As a distributor, it doesn’t make sense for us to go farm-to-farm picking up five cases here or 25 there when we need 700 cases,” Moore said.

Tomlin hopes the food council and the consolidator will help fill the “market disconnect” between growers and distributors like Moore.

Another problem Moore pointed out was that as a big distributor he must be able to guarantee food safety to his clients. That can be difficult to do when he’s dealing with small growers. But he said the food council will be a way to address the problem by creating a mechanism to inspect growers produce and methods to make sure they meet required standards.

Moore has no doubt that locally grown produce represents a huge business opportunity and he said that by establishing a local food council Knox County is already ahead of the pack.

Loffredo supplies food to John Deere’s plants in the Quad Cities. A new scheme at John Deere will put biographies and pictures of local farmers in cafeterias to promote local food.

“This is what all of these people are looking for,” Moore said. “To show that they are serving locally grown food.”

Tomlin pointed out that the members of the food council have been selected for their particular skills and experience.

The three County Board members on the council all bring expertise in the food business. Wayne Saline, R-District 4, and David Serven, R-District 5, are both farmers while Jeff Jefferson, D-District 5, is a food buyer with Hi-Lo supermarkets.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to increasing local food production is getting enough growers on board to supply the market.

The food council, with the help of the University of Illinois Knox County Extension, will launch an incubator on county-owned land near the Knox County Nursing Home to train growers and provide them with land.

Tomlin said the council will also look at ways of extending the growing season through the use of hydroponics and plastic tunnels to cover crops.

Once a significant number of growers are producing vegetables and fruit in Knox County the next stage of the project will be to attempt to add value to the produce by processing them in some form. This could mean, for example, canning local tomatoes.

Greg Mangieri, president of the Galesburg Regional Economic Development Association, and Cat Garza, manager of the local entrepreneurship center, will help the food council achieve that goal.

Both Moore and Tomlin urged the public to be patient with the project, which may not begin paying dividends to the local community for some time.

“Hopefully people will be patient with this,” Moore said. “This is something that will take time.”

The Knox County Board voted last Wednesday to establish the Knox County food council, The council will be self-sufficient and won’t use county funds to get off the ground, Tomlin said. He hopes the group will have its first meeting in May.

There are already a local growers networks and farmers markets in Knox County. The local growers network is run by Julie Haugland who also runs Vintages Tasting Room in Galesburg. Haugland said the group deals with “between 12 and 15 growers” and has 250 subscribers who receive regular e-mails about what produce the network has available to buy.

The local growers network also supplies food to Knox College and has applied for a federal grant to buy a greenhouse that would allow the network to extend its growing season. The group will sell produce at a new farmers market at the Knox County Fairgrounds in Knoxville.

Knox County Local Food Council Members

Wayne Saline, Jeff Jefferson and David Serven, Knox County Board members

Bonnie Harris, Knox County Regional Superintendent of Schools

Will Hayes, Knox County Department of Health

Jim Eastwood, Knoxville alderman

Jim Kilgore and Amy Brucker, local food growers

Kyle Cecil and Carrie McKillip, Knox County University of Illinois Extension

Lori Fink, Farm Service Agency.

Cat Garza, manager of Western Illinois Entrepreneurship Center

Jerry Moore, director of Branch Operations, Loffredo Fresh Produce Co.

Greg Mangieri, president of the Galesburg Regional Economic Development Association

Gary Tomlin, Knox County Economic Development Coordinator

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