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FOOD SECURITY in Evanston, IL: Ideas for 2022, for Illinois, and Beyond

Thanks to Anne Sills for connecting some of us Evanston food & farm folks to a new food security initiative in Evanston that’s just getting started. The initiative (still to be decided and fleshed out) involves one of the local Rotary clubs and a cohort of Northwestern University students in SESP’s Civic Engagement Certificate program (School of Education & Social Policy).

Anne asked us food & farm folks to share our thoughts with the Rotary/SESP group about the opportunities and obstacles facing Evanston in 2022. This blog consists of my thoughts, which I sent via email in response.

I am posting my email more publicly In the interests of 
— connecting other Evanstonians to the latest “local foods” conversations during this “moderately down time between growing seasons” (as Anne described it)
— sharing some of my knowledge about Illinois and U.S. local food systems

My email is organized as follows (headings have been slightly edited for clarity):

A. “WHAT IS AHEAD”: increasing food security in Evanston in 2022
2. Host a BOOK CLUB type series to study the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act report
3. Food supply chain in Illinois schools
1. The format of the IFFJA report: Obstacles & Solutions
2. Specific obstacles to food security
APPENDIX — COMMUNITY FOOD ASSESSMENT: The limits of urban agriculture

UPDATE: Jan. 7, 2022
Addendum to suggestion A.2 (book club)
New book looks like it would be a great candidate for an Evanston book club:
HOW THE OTHER HALF EATS: The Untold Story of Food & Inequality in America
by Pryia Fielding-Singh (U. of Utah)

According to the publisher’s details the book shows:
—the limits of narrow focus on food access
–how the very meaning of food is shaped, according to one’s income status


I’m not entirely clear on what you mean by developing a “sustainable food security-building initiative” in Evanston. But if I’m reading Anne’s email correctly, the Rotary/SESP group is interested in answers to:
—“what is ahead” (what still needs to be done)
—“what stands in the way of action”?

Curiously, my latest blog asks these very questions, albeit it in a more macro, existential kind of way, using my own experience as an example. A CONUNDRUM: Transition to a Gift Economy — Who gifts to the mothers?

The Gift Economy is just a term for Mother Earth’s giving economy and for what human mothers do vis-a-vis their babies, children, family, clans, neighbors, etc. Another term that has been used for the gift economy is the “maternal logic” of human culture. For some farmers, it might also be called “farmer’s logic”: the best farmers just want to grow and restore the soil. They don’t want to worry about whether or not they’re getting rich. (But they do have to live — just as mothers need to do. Hence, my conundrum and my blog.)

Below I have tried to answer your questions along with some practical suggestions for your project. Unfortunately, the issues are way bigger than just food.

Good luck and thanks to your cohort and the Rotary club for taking this on.
— Debbie

Increasing food security in Evanston in 2022

Based on my experience on food security since 2005 (in Evanston, Chicago area, Illinois, Midwest, and nationally) and as a professional gardener since the 1980s (now retired), I would say that it’s time for Evanston to
— get out of the “pilot project” mode
— get a big picture view
— commit real resources to make sure that everyone has enough to eat, every day, without having to worry about where their next meal will come from.

Not knowing your time frame or capacity for this project, I have three suggestions for the Rotary/SESP group, from most intensive to least intensive (labor & time-wise).

a. I don’t think that anyone in Evanston has ever done a rigorous community food assessment that would be usable by the City of Evanston (as well as the general public, individual food & farm projects, etc.). 

There are many existing templates out there or the Rotary/SESP group can make up its own. The three basic questions should be:
— The likely need in 2022 based on 2021 experience and any new factors that may arise re COVID, supply chains, extreme weather, etc.
— What Evanston can do internally: what’s worked in the past, how to scale up (e.g., ETHS should fully implement the Edible Acre project)
— What Evanston will not be able to do on our own: where can we ask for help — government officials, philanthropy, what policies need to be changed/enacted

Some parameters that you’ll want to keep in mind especially vis-a-vis community agriculture are in an appendix (see below: COMMUNITY FOOD ASSESSMENT: The limits of urban agriculture). 

b. Make sure that the assessment is available to the public and to City officials, so that people can know the full scope of the need and plan for the future.

2. Host a BOOK CLUB type series to study the Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act report (adopted by the State of Illinois in 2009 but yet to be implemented)The IFFJ Acts were written by Evanston’s former State Rep. Julie Hamos, in conjunction with a large statewide coalition.

Local Food, Farms, and Jobs:  Growing the Illinois Economy The report contains the “Illinois Local Food, Farms, & Jobs Plan” (including Goals for 2020) and is very readable (48 pages). The Illinois plan is still one of the most comprehensive plans in the country because it includes (a) non-food farm crops and (b) attention to democratic coordination and participation (which may be of interest for a Civic Engagement certificate).

My 2021 blog shows how the report can be used as a “climate plan” for Illinois (with a few updates and tweaks): LOCAL FOOD, FARMS & JOBS: The 2009 climate plan for Illinois farmers.

3. Food supply chain in Illinois schools: A black box?
Debrief SESP’s MSLOC program directors on the program’s 2009-11 (?) attempt to understand the Illinois school food system. It took us all two years to realize the whole school food chain was a “black box” of corruption.

It wasn’t until 2020, that a national report finally explained some of the details — kickbacks in the business models of the big three (Aramark, Compass, Sodexo).  See Be-Trayed: How Kickbacks in the Cafeteria Industry Harm our Communities — and what to do about it.

I don’t know if Kimberly (Scott) and Jeff (Merrell) remember much at this distance (maybe they just want to forget about it). But they might be an interesting resource, especially because not much has changed yet in the institutional food world (schools, hospitals, etc.).


1. The format of the IFFJA report (Local Food, Farms, and Jobs:  Growing the Illinois Economy) may be useful because the report identifies a number of OBSTACLES to localizing Illinois’s food & farm system and identifies a number of SOLUTIONS for each obstacle. The four basic sections are:
— Production
— Infrastructure
— Customer Access
— Systems Builing

2. Our entire economic system is an obstacle to food security for all, including our educational system (teaching to the test) and our money & banking system (which created our current food insecurity and all other economic inequalities).

Specific obstacles to food security are:
a. Lack of affordable housing. 
b. Less than living wages for more and more people (including farmers, both rural & urban).
c. Turf wars amongst Evanston and other non-profits.
d. Lack of funding for food & farm projects in U.S.
e. Urban ignorance about soil, weather, etc.
f.  General U.S. ignorance that food production is not like manufacturing. Every growing year is a crap-shoot (now more than ever). 
g.  Lack of resources ($$ and time) for mothers.h. We don’t live in a real democracy, but we’ve been snookered into thinking that we do.
i.  General confusion and ignorance about how money works vs. how it should work in a democracy (confusion and ignorance that is both shared and encouraged by economists, bankers, multinational corporations, business schools, etc., because in the U.S. the money power has been privatized):
—Short new essay: The Private Money System (Part 1 of The Money Matrix), by Sue Peters
—New book by Vietnam vet from Indiana (pub. date is Jan. 15): People, Planet & the Power of Money, by Nick Egnatz

COMMUNITY FOOD ASSESSMENT: The limits of urban agriculture

1. By definition, an urban community is never going to be growing all of its food. 
Even the poster city for urban agriculture — Havanna, Cuba — still only grows 50% of its food (if my memory is correct).

2. Feeding a family of four for one year requires 2.5 acres
During the 2008-09 State of Illinois task force (Illinois Food, Farms & Jobs Act), one of our members (Chuck Paprocki, a farmer from southern Illinois) figured out a basic metric for how much acreage is needed to feed Illinois people. His basic unit was feeding a family of four for one year on a largely vegetarian diet. His calculation came up with 2.5 acres.

Evanston’s acreage is approximately 4,992 acres (7.8 square miles).Our population according to the most recent census is approx. 78,000 people, approx. 19,500 “families” of 4.

Using Chuck’s numbers, this means that Evanston would need 48,750 acres to feed everyone for a year. This is almost 10 times the amount of acreage we actually have in Evanston (4,992), most of which is currently not green space or farmable.

NOTE: I recently mentioned Chuck’s basic acreage/family of four to Fred Carter, an Illinois farmer in Pembroke Township. His qualification on Chuck’s 2.5 acres is that it would need to be farmed “intensively”. In other words, we might need MORE acreage to feed all of Evanston.

Obviously, these calculations are just an exercise designed to remind us all that good soil and farmland is a prerequisite for feeding large amounts of people for a whole year. 

3. Food insecurity in Evanston: how many people, what kinds of food
The next step, which may already be known, is how many Evanston people are food insecure — what is the scope of Evanston’s need?—and how much can Evanston reasonably expect to grow in 2022 to meet that need?

Additionally, the Rotary group would need to identify the foods that cannot be produced on Evanston land but that would be needed in terms of (a) a balanced diet, and (b) diverse cultural diets? What quantities of what specific foods (including meat, dairy, etc.) will you need to alleviate food insecurity in Evanston in 2022? 

4. Evanston soils — 40+ years of desertification
As more and more people want to grow food, it’s important to realize that for the last 40 years, most of Evanston’s soil infrastructure has been abused, degraded, and not fed. Our soil’s capacity to grow abundant, healthy food has been compromised primarily by (a) discarding our leaves, grass clippings, etc., every year, (b) disturbing our ecosystems, especially insects and microorganisms, and (c) poisons on properties (pesticides, herbicides, winter salt, lead paint residue, etc.). Evanston-based composting (homeowners, city, etc.) is essential for a food-secure future.