By TAMMIE SLOUP
A state-funded program that will create long-term relationships between farms and food banks was recently made permanent by Gov. JB Pritzker.
The governor signed House Bill 2879 into law on Aug. 3, establishing the Illinois Farm to Food Bank Program. The bill creates mechanisms for acquiring and distributing fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, dairy and eggs to organizations providing free food for those in need.
The Farm to Food Bank pilot program has been administered by Feeding Illinois and was launched in 2021 with grant funding from USDA.
The program connects food banks with Illinois farmers to establish a pipeline of fresh food for food pantries throughout the state. It also provides a secondary market for products that might be left in the field or trees, or blemished products.
“It’s good for our farmers’ bottom line, it’s good for those in need, and it’s good for our state — a win for everyone in Illinois,” Pritzker said.
The program will be administered by the Illinois Department of Human Services with a $2 million investment in FY 2024.
During the pilot program’s first two years, nearly 2.5 million pounds of food was moved for $1.1 million. Food acquired through the program must be from Illinois producers and must meet market-grade quality and consumption levels. However, much of the food going to the program is excess food that would have been wasted without food banks as an outlet. The lack of a centralized donation program was a barrier to farmers looking to donate in the past.
The bill also includes capacity-building grants for capital improvements needed to store and transport fresh food to better reach underserved communities. The program focuses on fresh and nutritious foods, which are often difficult to secure at many food banks. The bill also creates a Farm to Food Bank Advisory Council to support and advise on the work of the program and establish and build relationships with agricultural producers.
“Illinois’ No. 1 industry is agriculture, and we are building the vision that ensures every community can benefit from the bounty our state produces. As chair of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, it is clear that we get closer to that vision by building strong relationships with our local farmers. The Farm to Foodbank Program provides a pathway to do just that,” Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said.
While many farmers would prefer to donate excess food they’ve grown to food banks or local food pantries, often the logistics and cost hinder such donations. The pilot program used USDA funding to help defray some of those costs by reimbursing farmers for their picking and pack-out costs — any expense related to harvesting, packaging and transporting the food.
Initiative partners include Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Specialty Growers Association, Illinois Farmers Market Association, University of Illinois Extension and the Prairie Research Institute’s Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. While the pilot program has been active for only a couple growing seasons, the partners have been working on the project for 5 years.
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.