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Growing Local: Local foods movement increases in Champaign-Urbana

By Pam G. Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess

Urbana resident Clark McPhail likes fresh food.

So nearly every Saturday in the summer, he bikes to Urbana’s Market at the Square and browses among the dozens of vendors to shop for fruits and vegetables.

“In the summertime, 70 percent of our vegetable produce I buy here from the farmer’s market or Common Ground,” McPhail said.


“I don’t mind paying a little extra for quality produce,” he said.

Local food sales are a billion-dollar industry and a growing one, according to a  2012 federal report.

Urbana’s Market at the Square, for example, nets between 6,000 and 7,000 visitors each Saturday.


Local foods sold either directly to the consumer or through restaurants or grocery stores netted nearly $5 billion in sales nationwide, according to data from the USDA 2008 Agriculture Resource Management Survey, the most recent available.

Most of the sales were through grocery stores and restaurants, with direct sales to consumers netting nearly $900 million.

And though local food programs have roots dating back to the 1930s, mainstream interest has taken a sharp increase over the past decade, according to the federal 2012 report.

This trend is mirrored in Champaign-Urbana with new farmer’s markets on North First Street and the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District as well as an increase in community gardens in underserved areas, such as Lierman Neighborhood and north Champaign.

In the Lierman Neighborhood area, Urbana officials worked with residents to help secure water and land for the garden, which is on the corner of Lierman and Washington streets.

“We are building a garden because we believe it will offer access to fresh vegetables at an affordable price and in a convenient location for people interested in growing food for themselves or their neighbors,” said Robin Arbiter, a participant in the Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee.

The increase in farmer’s markets and community gardens both locally and nationally aim to fill a need in food deserts - where residents are more than a mile away from fresh produce – or to help sustain a local economy.

Dawn Blackman, the steward of the Randolph Street Community Garden, launched a small farmer’s market at a fish market near the garden last year to help residents in the neighborhood buy fresh food

“Some of the gas stations carry bananas and oranges and apples everywhere but here, you know, so unless they can go to north Prospect, they can’t shop for food,” she said.

To support sustainability and economic development among the local food industry, Champaign County Board of Member Pattsi Petrie pushed the board to create the Champaign County Local Foods Policy Council.

In March, the county board approved a resolution creating the council, which had its first meeting in June.

“I view it as economic development and the kind of economic development that keeps money in the county,” Petrie said.

Another goal is for preservation or to make use of vacant land, much like the upcoming community garden in Lierman Neighborhood, she said.

“Local food can be on a few odd-shaped acres,” Petrie said.

The local foods council is made up entirely of members from the community.

Its goals include economic development for local food systems as well as small business loans and “to encourage the offering of better and fresher food locally,” according to the resolution.

While generally referred to as food grown within a certain region or geography, there lacks a standard definition of “local food”.

The local requirement for vendors at the Urbana’s Market at the Square is anywhere within the state of Illinois.

“But because we are strict about staying within Illinois borders for our producers, people who produce really great melons 45 minutes away in Indiana can’t attend. So that’s where the concept of local gets a little weird,” said Lisa Bralts, director of the market.

Other farmer’s markets may differ, she said, and may limit their vendors to a 100-mile radius, for example.

The radius for defining local vendors is up to each farmer’s market. Urbana’s Market at the Square follows a guideline set by the market’s beginnings in the late 1970s.

“The lack of a universally agreed-upon definition, however, does raise questions about “what is a local food” and may also provide opportunities for fraud in the marketplace with the sale of foods that are marketed as “local” when they cannot be determined to be local,” according to the 2012 USDA report.

This is why Lisa Bralts, director of the Urbana’s Market at the Square, verifies that every vendor grows or makes the items they sell each weekend.

“Our market is a producer-only market, which means that if it’s being sold at the market then the person who made it or grew it has to be there or a representative has to be there. So there’s no resale,” Bralts said.

To that end, Bralts will visit the farmers who apply to be a vendor at the farmer’s market.

“Most people who visit the farmers market and buy things from a farmer even for many years will never take a trip to that farm. So I
feel like it’s part of my job to sort of be an ambassador from the
farmers to the public,” she said.

Bralts recently visited Blue Moon Farm, a long-time vendor at the market about 10 miles outside of town.

It’s one of the 45 local food producers within a 25-mile radius of Champaign, according to the University of Illinois digital tool, MarketMaker, which connects consumers with local food.

Jon Cherniss, who owns Blue Moon Farm, grew up on an egg farm in Southern California and used to make regular egg deliveries to McDonald’s during his high-school and early college years

Defining local, he said, depends on a consumer’s goals.

“If it’s flavor and taste then wherever you need to go to get that specific flavor and taste,” Cherniss said. “If it’s about community and your neighbor and building a stronger community, then … it gets much closer.”


¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.