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NIU conference to study regional food systems

September 25, 2013

A photo of fruits and vegetablesIn a state known for agriculture, most people are surprised to learn that Illinois produces very little food for its own residents.

Almost all of the $50 billion Illinoisans spend on food each year leaves the state, as the majority of Illinois’ farmable land is given over to monoculture row crops such as corn and soybeans.

Developing regional food systems that produce a variety of fresh, home-grown fruits and vegetables can also provide new jobs and profitable income streams for local governments.

Getting institutions to support such systems is the subject of a day-long workshop next month, hosted by NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies.

“Engaging Institutions in Developing Regional Food Systems: Setting the Table for Collaboration” is scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15, at the Loyola University Retreat and Ecology Center in Woodstock, Ill.

Registration is available online.

Pat Inman

Pat Inman

“This conference is really aimed at all types of institutions,” said Pat Inman, senior research associate at CGS.

“Financial institutions will be needed to lend money, hospitals and schools will have an interest in nutrition issues, community activists need to identify potential collaborators – we’re reaching out to a broad range of potential partners,” she said.

Universities and community colleges are particularly interested in the sustainable food movement, Inman says, both as a subject of research and because society will soon look to them as a source of education on this “new” form of agriculture.

“Right now, people wanting to learn how to develop smaller sustainable farms are going to alternative educational providers such as the Chicago Botanic Garden or Angelic Organics,” she said. “Agricultural education in farm belt states like Illinois has been geared toward very large-scale production of commodity crops like corn and soybeans. The sustainable food movement will pressure higher education to develop curricula that creates a pipeline of well-educated farmers and the economic development that supports them.”

Among the conference speakers:

  • Richard Weinzierl, professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Patsy Benveniste, vice president of education and community programs for the Chicago Botanic Garden
  • Christopher Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University
  • Nancy Tuchman, founding director of the Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University
  • Alan Shannon, director of public affairs for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service
  • Dan Kenney, director of DeKalb County Community Gardens

Subjects to be covered by speakers and in afternoon “open space” discussions include how to ramp up local food production so that it is institutionalized in a community; innovative ways for institutions to engage in food production; and programs that will support sustainable regional development.

“We can create jobs and develop sustainable economic development through local food production,” Inman said. “But community and regional approaches all require collaboration between and among many different institutions. That’s what this conference is all about.”

For more information, contact Inman at (815) 753-6925 or [email protected].