clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

As COVID drives need for locally sourced food, Chicago, downstate farmers get help scaling up

As the pandemic continues to impact the import and transport of food, Illinois and other states are throwing support behind local food growers; 27 farms, including three in Chicago, recently split $250,000 in Illinois grant support.

As the pandemic continues to impact the import and transport of food, Illinois and other states are throwing support behind local food growers. Johari Cole-Kweli (l), owner of Iyabo Farms in Pembroke Township, and Stephanie Dunn, owner of Star Farms in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, are among 27 Illinois farmers that recently received $250,000 in grants. Cole-Kweli regularly drives up to deliver produce to Dunn.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact the import and transport of food, Illinois and other states are throwing support behind local food growers. Johari Cole-Kweli (l), owner of Iyabo Farms in Pembroke Township, and Stephanie Dunn, owner of Star Farm Chicago in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, are among 27 Illinois farmers that recently shared $250,000 in grants. Cole-Kweli regularly drives up to deliver produce to Dunn.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Johari Cole-Kweli grew up in the West Side K-Town neighborhood, got her microbiology degree from Michigan State University, then worked for pharmaceutical firms before realizing Big Pharma couldn’t solve nagging health disparities in the Black community.

Nutrition was the answer, she believed. So she and her husband partnered with others to launch an organic health food cooperative on the South Side, purchasing produce from Illinois farmers and selling it from a storefront at 75th & Yates, in South Shore.

That was the early ’90s. Folks hadn’t latched on yet to the organics movement, so the operation struggled, shuttering after four years. That’s when this city girl moved to a farm.

“Our primary goal was providing South Siders with good, solid nutritious food. When the co-op closed, we knew we wanted to keep a hand in that system,” said Cole-Kweli, who owns the 50-acre Iyabo Farms in Pembroke Township, an hour and a half south of Chicago.

The 28-year-old farm run with her husband and two children is among 27 statewide recently awarded $250,000 in grants from the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, to meet skyrocketing demand for local food spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Demand has grown nationwide.

Three of the 27 are in Chicago: Catatumbo Cooperative Farm, at 2232 S. Marshall Blvd.; Closed Loop Farms, at 1400 W. 46th St.; and Star Farm Chicago, at 934 W. 50th Place.

Along with Cole-Kweli’s farm and Broadview Farm and Gardens in Marengo, those three are among the five owned/operated by persons of color, whose grants are seeded by a new Fresh Food from Farmers of Color Fund established by the Illinois Department of Human Services, with federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) monies.

The majority of the grant money comes from the Chicago Region Food System Fund created in June by several foundations to help Illinois farmers scale up production at a time when demand exceeds supply downstate and in food desert neighborhoods in Chicago.

“In April, right after the shelter-in-place order, and about the time we started hearing of empty grocery shelves and a back-up at large meat processing and food companies where workers were getting sick, we started checking in with our farmers,” said Liz Moran Stelk of the Alliance group, the first to sound the alarm with state officials about the rising need.

Stephanie Dunn (l), owner of Star Farm in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, and Johari Cole-Kweli, owner of Iyabo Farms in Pembroke Township, are among 27 Illinois farmers that recently received $250,000 in grants to meet skyrocketing demand for local food spurred by the pandemic. Cole-Kweli regularly drives up to deliver eggs and produce to Dunn.
Stephanie Dunn (l), owner of Star Farm Chicago, at 934 W. 50th Place, and Johari Cole-Kweli, owner of Iyabo Farms in Pembroke Township, are among 27 Illinois farmers that recently received $250,000 in grants to meet skyrocketing demand for local food spurred by the pandemic. Cole-Kweli regularly drives up to deliver eggs and produce to Dunn.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“Farmers who sell direct to consumers, especially those offering CSA subscriptions and online sale platforms, touchless pick-ups, or home deliveries, were seeing huge demand,” said Stelk. “People were looking for reliable, safe local food, with short supply chains. At the same time, farmers selling to restaurants and schools had the rug pulled from under them.”

CSA refers to community supported agriculture — where consumers buy directly from farmers, through subscriptions. Such services have grown increasingly popular in the Farm-to-Table or Real Food Movement that has seen urban farms and farmers markets springing up in communities throughout Chicago.

The aim is to counteract dependence on shelf-stable, high-calorie, low-nutrition food cited as contributing culprit to longstanding health gaps seen nationally by income and race.

The alliance worked with state officials on the grant program to support farmers like Cole-Kweli and Stephanie Dunn, founder of Star Farm Chicago in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. It’s where Cole-Kweli was found delivering 30 dozen eggs and fresh produce Wednesday.

“We are a full community supported agriculture service. Every week, we’re making hundreds of home deliveries of fresh organic produce, and now we are offerings eggs, bread, jam and honey,” said Dunn of the four-year-old, nonprofit farm.

Dunn’s farm, with programs serving area youth and families, got $10,000 to purchase a freezer, a walk-in cooler, and canning and jarring equipment.

Star Farm, at 934 W. 50th Place in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, is among three Chicago farms to receive grants from the Illinois Stewardship Alliance to meet skyrocketing demand for local food spurred by the coronavirus pandemic; 27 Illinois farmers shared $250,000 in grants.
Star Farm, at 934 W. 50th Place in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, is among three Chicago farms to receive grants from the Illinois Stewardship Alliance to meet skyrocketing demand for local food spurred by the coronavirus pandemic; 27 Illinois farmers shared $250,000 in grants.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“A lot of food pantries and grocery stores in our neighborhood closed down for a good portion of time due to the pandemic and unrest, creating a huge void of fresh produce, which you don’t want to see in an area plagued by hypertension and diabetes,” said Dunn.

“We stayed open. The demand from people coming to the farm or farm stand has been huge. We have a lot of single mothers and homebound seniors requesting food assistance.”

With her own $10,000 grant, Cole-Kweli plans to purchase a walk-in cooler, processing and packaging equipment, and tons of compost, for better irrigation.

“We’ve been fighting for 20 years for the state to invest in its growers, trying to help them understand that the whole state is a food desert, because we’re only growing two to three percent of our food supply. Illinois imports like 98 percent of its food,” said Cole-Kweli.

“So if anything happens, like the situation with COVID, where transport is challenged, and we’re not as able to import from China or Mexico, our food supply is at risk,” she said.

“I’m glad the state is now looking to improve local food supplies, but we’re facing triple the demand. That means quickly scaling our infrastructure and labor. It’s hard to meet supply right now, but we’re all trying.”