Liz Moran Stelk

farm-to-fork movements have proven they are much more than just a fad and the demand for local food is growing. According to the 2016 Restaurant Industry Forecast, 68 percent of consumers said they were more likely to dine at an establishment with local food on the menu. And that’s good news for family farmers who market their food in the local and regional marketplace.

Despite the serious potential that exists in this area, many would-be food and farm entrepreneurs struggle to enter the marketplace. A lack of infrastructure, like storage, transportation and processing capacity, combined with a lack of technical links, like marketing, food safety training, and business planning, have made it difficult for many farmers to grow their business and access new customers. And as the ag economy currently experiences a downturn and some challenging economic headwinds, increasing numbers of family farmers are capitalizing on farm-to-fork programs as a way to keep their operations viable. Federal farm bill programs are working to make the costs of transitioning bearable for family farmers and mitigate the risks that come with change.

Now, it’s up to us to make that opportunity easier.

To keep our ag economy strong, it is imperative that we properly support a farm-to-fork network that connects local producers with consumers. Doing so would not only generate more income for producers, but would bolster our communities and give all consumers more options and access for local food. New farm bill policy should help connect these dots.

Particularly in underserved communities and in low-income families, too often fresh, local food is out of reach and expensive. Innovative federal programs that allow farmers markets and produce stands to accept food stamps are breaking down that barrier so agricultural producers reach those who need it most.

Quite simply, when it comes to farm-to-fork agriculture, we need to roll out the welcome mat to these producers, and quickly, if we hope to sustain and expand these programs.

Local food must be a priority in the 2018 Farm Bill. As the House and Senate Committees on Agriculture prepare to write new legislation, we hope that Illinois’ congressional delegation will share our concern for the future of family farms by catalyzing food and farm entrepreneurship.

The Illinois Stewardship Alliance is actively championing important industry reforms that will further the efforts of farmers across the state. Aside from local food programs, we also support modern policy solutions for supporting beginner farmer and rancher programs, strengthening conservation and expanding crop insurance, as they play a vital role in an economically viable, socially just and environmentally sustainable food system. We invite you to learn more about our organization at ilstewards.org.

Liz Moran Stelk is the executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, an Illinois not-for-profit organization that advocates for food and agriculture.

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