By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
ALTON — More than a year after supporters launched a movement to push locally grown food, the cultivation of the program continues.
Interest is definitely there, with the latest salvo coming by way of a series of speakers who addressed the subject during a spring seminar at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey.
Alton Area Business Development Association, a nonprofit, economic development organization, was formed last year for the purpose of pushing a multifold development plan centered around food and the arts. One aspect calls for renting unused or little used commercial kitchen space to those who are wanting to explore cooking opportunities but need the kitchen space to do it. Another aspect calls for drawing more interest in locally grown and distributed products, a so-called food hub that links, growers, farmers markets and restaurants. Generated funds are intended to be used toward business incubation.
A climate controlled logistics center, which would serve as a distribution point for some of the products, is in the works for property in the 400 block of Ridge Street in Alton — a site to be shared with a cooperative grocery store that hopes to soon open with the help of a fund-raising campaign and local volunteers.
A brand, the Great Rivers Market Fresh Network, was created to draw attention to the whole process, touting the Alton area community as a growing home to entrepreneurs, chefs, food fans and artisans of all kinds.
Cynthia Haskins, manager of business development and compliance in the Governmental Affairs and Commodities Division of the Illinois Farm Bureau, spoke at the seminar, which was attended by around 80 people from throughout the region.
Haskins has been responsible for creating and implementing programs to assist local business development including the expansion of marketing and distribution networks for local food products. She concentrates a lot on food labeling and safety requirements. She has coordinated more than 20 “Meet the Buyer” events to link farmers with potential grocery and food-service buyers. She also coordinates a statewide food summit that annually attracts more than 300 participants.
“Things have gone crazy in the last few years,” she said of the movement. In 2012, there was an estimated $6.1 billion in local food sales in Illinois. By 2014, that number had grown to $12 billion, she said.
Surveys have shown that 61 percent of those who buy local foods do so to support the local farmer.
Still, local-food sales only represents about 2 percent of the overall sales numbers, Haskins said. Organic producers represent 4 percent of the total.
She believes local-food sales “are already at critical mass. It will not go back, it will only advance.”
Farmers have become celebrities in some communities, she said. Farmers markets have grown 288 percent since 2006. Illinois now ranks fifth in the nation in such markets, with 309, but would rank No. 3 if all 350 markets — some unregistered — were counted.
Haskins said Illinois passed a Cottage Foods law a couple of years ago that is an opportunity for foodies to test homemade recipes in their kitchens and sell them through farmers’ markets.
“They are low-risk items, they cannot spoil easily. There’s a technical bulletin that clearly tells what you can and cannot sell in Illinois. Sales have to be less than 25,000 units and there is legislation on the table right now to expand some of the marketplaces.
“It’s a great way to test the market,” she said. “Through their voting dollars (consumers) will tell you if your product is something palatable.”
There are a number of places where such foods can be sold, from the traditional grocers in the region, like Schnuck and Dierbergs, to specialty stores, restaurants, meat lockers, schools and universities and food management companies.
“A lot of people think that just because a chain is national that it would not be interested in something local. That is so not true,” Haskins said. “Many stores recognized that consumers want to buy local, and they are figuring out how to make it work.”
For people considering selling to food services, such operations generally require a minimum of three to four deliveries a week, and their inventory needs frequently change. Getting paid is also a concern. A big operation may not always have the best credit.
“As they check you out, you need to check out them,” Haskins said.
Much of what is done with products between the farm and market is addressed in the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, the rules of which are now being rolled out, she said.
The spring seminar featured many others speakers. Colleen Callahan, state director for Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture, said there are many loans and grants offered through her agency, for potential food businesses and others.
“Rural Development is a lender, we’re a bank basically, we’re a financial facilitator, if you will. Loans and grants specifically to meet the needs of rural communities.”
Of 43 programs that fall under Rural Development, all but two have a population threshold for seeking grants, with most of those being communities under 50,000 people. One that has no population requirement is a value-added producer grant, designed to help people who take farm products and add to them to create a new product.
Also popular is a business/industry loan guarantee program in which the agency partners with local banks to guarantee loans to business customers.
She gave the example of Watershed Foods in Livingston County, which sought such a loan for a freeze-dried fruit business that eventually became a fruit-flavored “yogurt bite” business.
“You see these Parents’ Choice packets in a lot of stores, but primarily Wal-Mart,” she said.
More information on those loan programs is available by calling the USDA Rural Development Illinois State Office at (217) 403-6200 or the website at www.rurdev.usda.gov/il
More information about the ongoing efforts of the Alton Area Business Development Association can be found at http://www.marketfreshnetwork.org/