A New Push Is on in Chicago to Connect Urban Farmers With Institutional Buyers Like Schools and Hospitals


More local growers, a healthier population and climate change mitigation are what urban agriculture advocates and researchers envision for the future of Chicago’s food systems.

Linking small producers and producers of color with public institutions like schools, hospitals and detention centers in the food supply chain can be a significant step in that direction because of the hundreds of thousands of people they serve, said Weslynne Ashton, associate professor of environmental management at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“Large public institutions have huge spending power, and with their spending power around food, are really able to shift how food procurement happens,” said Ashton.

Now, Ashton is leading a study exploring how to bridge the gap between small producers and large institutional buyers like universities and hospitals. Ashton and a group of community organizations, civic partners and academic researchers in November were awarded a $50,000 grant by the National Science Foundation to advance equity, resilience and sustainability in Chicago’s food system.

A food system refers to all the people, resources and operations involving food. This includes production, processing, transport, packaging, consumption and waste. Current food systems are largely dominated by food service corporations and industrial agriculture, are environmentally unsustainable and adversely affect marginalized communities’ health and food access, food system experts say. Many institutional and wholesale buyers favor the industrial model of dominant food systems because it allows for large quantities of food production at cheaper prices. 

“We have these long supply chains, so food may be coming from very different places,  processed somewhere else, stored somewhere else and then distributed to folks who need it, and we’ve really lost a lot of localized production,” said Ashton.

Marlie Wilson, project manager for the Good Food Purchasing Project at the Chicago Food Purchasing Action Council, said the initiative will leverage building investments in community health and community wealth. The council, which is involved in the project with Ashon, is a food justice advocacy group working to ensure that Chicago, Cook County and sister agencies meet their good food purchasing goals, including advancing local economies, environmental sustainability and nutrition.

The team will investigate and design pilot food procurement programs at the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and Chicago Public Schools.

“We’re building out a more sustainable and equitable, healthy food system because our public dollars that go toward food are feeding so many across our community,” said Wilson.

One of the partners piloting this research, Chicago Public Schools, is the third-largest public school district in the country, serving more than 340,000 students. Ashton said that processed meats and desserts are some of the district’s biggest spending on food procurement. 

“From a nutritional perspective and from a climate perspective, those aren’t the best things to be feeding our kids or people in general,” said Ashton. 

The pilot models aim to measure how locally produced food can meet institutional needs through equitable and sustainable practices. The findings from these models will be transferable to food systems in other cities across the country, said Ashton. 

“We hope that research to support equity and sustainability in food systems will bring more diverse producers to the table,” Chicago Public Schools said in a statement to Inside Climate News. “Our aim is to create—and maintain—long-lasting relationships with diverse suppliers.”

The research project led by Ashton will build on an executive order from Mayor Lori Lightfoot to create a food equity council tasked with expanding partnerships with people of color in addressing racial and social inequities in Chicago’s food system.

It will also build on the Good Food Purchasing Program that Chicago, Cook County and sister agencies adopted in 2017 and 2018. Los Angeles first adopted the policy in 2012 to make food systems more sustainable and food served to people in public institutions like schools, hospitals, detention centers and senior centers healthier.

This shift could benefit farmers like Clarence Smith, a Chicago native who grew up farming in the summers in Michigan and Mississippi. With the momentum he’s seen in support of local farming partnerships, he hopes to partner with schools next. He’s been invited out to share his thoughts on equitable food systems with the Chicago Food Policy Action Council as a local producer with experience in partnerships with institutions. 

Chicago native Clarence Smith grows organic produce and sells it to local establishments, including health clinics and restaurants. Credit: One Family Farms
Chicago native Clarence Smith grows organic produce and sells it to local establishments, including health clinics and restaurants. Credit: One Family Farms

Smith started growing his farm more than three years ago and sold his products in the community. Then he found that selling wholesale to institutions like health clinics and universities allowed him to offer a portion of his produce at below-market pricing in areas with food deserts, a core mission of his organic farm

He’s noticed an increased demand for locally and sustainably grown produce from local establishments like restaurants. His staff has doubled in the last two years, and his partners, which include universities and health centers throughout the city, have tripled. His business, One Family Farms, also serves about 200 families a week through Women, Infant and Children (WIC), a federally-funded nutrition program offering local fresh produce at low rates. 

He’s excited about the city’s push to support local farmers. “I believe they’re doing a great thing by opening up the doors and pulling up the covers off of what was previously held in a back room, to now open to everybody,” said Smith.

Local food production is gaining traction in Chicago, according to research led by Tania Schusler, an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago. Schusler’s analysis, published in November, examined how local nonprofit organizations’ responses to the impacts of Covid-19 are leading to food systems that are more sustainable, equitable and resilient. According to the International Food Policy and Research Institute, the pandemic disrupted food supply chains, creating food insecurity that disproportionately impacted people of color the most. 

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And it’s not just academics who are seeing the evolution. Smith says he’s heard about more demand for local food from other Chicago-area farmers, and sees more farming while driving around the city. 

“There really are a lot of food deserts, so people have found a niche,” said Smith. “A lot of people are moving toward this trend of buying and supporting entrepreneurs or hyper-local producers.”

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