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Farm to Foodbank Act allows local farmers to sell their products directly to food banks

Local produce farmers, poultry and meat producers will have a permanent outlet for their excess food products at local food banks through the Farm to Foodbank Act (HB-2879), which was signed into law on Aug. 3 by Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker.

The legislation, sponsored by State Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago, and State Sen. Linda Holmes, D- Aurora, establishes the Illinois Farm to Food Bank Program (FTFBP) to expand resources for food bank systems across the state while supporting local farmers. It creates mechanisms for acquiring and distributing fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, dairy, and eggs to organizations that provide free food for those in need.

Proponents of the FTFBP say the food supply chains such programs create help to feed communities while also bolstering local farmers and rural economies.

According to Feeding Illinois Executive Director Steve Ericson, the Illinois FTFBP initially began as a pilot program in 2021 with funding provided through a grant allotted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and authorized by the federal Farm Bill.

“The FTFBP concept has been something that we at Feeding Illinois, where we serve all 102 Illinois counties, have been aspiring to for many years. It has a number of objectives, primarily to help support our Illinois farmers and communities, to give (food bank customers) access to more local foods and to capture the surplus food and ‘seconds,’ as we call them, that may be (otherwise) heading for the compost pile but are still nutritious,” Ericson said in an interview with WCBU.

Illinois program requires food bank fund match

The non-profit organization Feeding Illinois has facilitated the fledgling FTFBP for the past three years via USDA grant funding provided by the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS). The program began with just one Illinois farmer, but has grown to now involve around 13 farmers, an auction house and a handful of farmer’s markets. Though the program will now be somewhat sustainable through the Illinois General Assembly’s annual funding, Ericson hopes that USDA will continue to administer the FTFBP.

“We are hoping for a partnership (between) us, the state and the USDA because the FTFBP is under consideration in the new farm bill to keep it going,” said Ericson. “It’s been a huge success for the state of Illinois, maybe more than any other state.”

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service allocated $3.772 million for Farm to Food Bank projects in FY 2023. This was authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill that provided around $4 million each year for FTFB projects from FY 2019 through FY 2023. With the 2023 Farm Bill currently under consideration, the Illinois General Assembly’s action will help to ensure the program endures regardless of farm bill authorization and funding.

“We would love to see USDA continue (FTFBP funding) in the new farm bill as well as the state funding. I think a key ingredient here is that our food banks are also required to make a 50 percent match, so everybody would have some skin in the game,” Ericson said.

During the two years of the Illinois pilot program, producers donated nearly 2.5 million pounds of food through the FTFBP.

FTFB origins go back 40 years

Under the Illinois FTFB Act of 2023, the program will continue to be administered by the IDHS with a $2 million investment earmarked for FY24. The Illinois bill also includes capacity-building grants for capital improvements needed to store and transport fresh food to better reach underserved communities. In addition, HB 2879 creates a Farm to Food Bank Advisory Council to guide the work of the program and build relationships with agricultural producers.

Because most food producers cannot afford to give their products away, what will make the FTFBA work, according to the bill’s supporters, is the ability of state agencies to pay fair market prices to farmers for their products.

The FTFB concept dates back four decades, though the “modern” FTFB movement gained traction in 2020 to help address the pandemic-related food distribution crisis. In part, it served as a method for producers to move excess produce and other food products that were spoiling due to the supply chain crisis that affected agriculture.

The origin of the FTFB movement can be traced to the Emergency Food Assistance Act of 1983, which provided funding to state agencies administering The Emergency Food Assistance Program. The funding went to pay for approved project proposals to harvest, process, package, or transport commodities donated by agricultural producers. These initiatives were dubbed “Farm to Food Bank Projects.”

Kate Maehr, executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository and co-chair of the Illinois Commission to End Hunger, said the FTFBA of 2023 will provide important nourishment for Illinois families in danger of food insecurity.

"We are overjoyed that Illinois will now have an established Farm to Food Bank program," Maehr said in a news release from the governor’s office. “We are grateful to Gov. Pritzker and members of the Illinois General Assembly for making this critical decision to invest in the health of our neighbors." For more information about the Illinois Farm to Foodbank program, visit www.feedingillinois.org.

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Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.
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