Chicagoans carpooling to capitol in Springfield to lobby for changes in Illinois food and agriculture laws

photos submitted by Advocates for Urban Agriculture

photos submitted by Advocates for Urban Agriculture

alt text By Maia McDonald, Environmental Health and Wellness Reporter, The Real Chi

On April 10, Chicago residents are participating in Local Food Lobby Day by carpooling across the state to Springfield to advocate for policies that support sustainable farming practices, food sovereignty, and healthy eating. The 200 mile journey is organized in collaboration between food policy organizations Advocates for Urban Agriculture and the Illinois Stewardship Alliance  in an effort to improve the chances of passing legislation that is good for Chicago’s urban agriculture opportunities.

“It’s important to put a human face and a local face to these issues,” said Nick Lucas, programs manager for AUA. “When it comes to these issues of sustainable agriculture and access, these are things we should all be able to agree on in order to create a more equitable local food system.”

For the Chicagoans traveling down to Springfield, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance is providing training to prepare them on legislation they’ll be advocating for. Lucas says that when legislators hear firsthand from their constituents why these laws matter, they gain a greater perspective on the importance of local food issues.

"...we want to chip away at hunger and food deserts in communities.”

“In my experience, they’ve always stepped out into the hallway and we’ve had a good conversation about why we cared about the bill and how it would impact local food economy. It’s usually a great interaction,” Lucas said.

For the urban farmers, community gardeners, community organizations and food advocates heading down to Springfield, there are the five key policies on the agenda that those making the journey hope will affect Chicago and beyond.

1. Financial Support for Farmers Markets

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Food advocates will be asking legislators to appropriate $500,000 for the Healthy Local Foods Incentive Fund. The Healthy Local foods Incentive Fund was created to promote healthy eating by offering double-dollars for shoppers purchasing groceries using food stamps at farmers markets. The state funds would be equally matched by federal dollars, supplying up to $1,000,000 for local farmers markets to subsidize healthy eating for low-income shoppers.

According to Liz Moran Stelk from the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, the state legislature passed a resolution last year to create the Healthy Local Foods Incentive Fund, sponsored by the Farmers Market Association, the AUA, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance and the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity. However, the resolution didn’t appropriate any money for it due to budget shortfalls.  

“So families that shop at farmers markets in Illinois will be able to double the amount of produce they’re able to buy,” Moran Stelk said. “It’s our top ask because obviously, farmers who sell at the farmers markets want to sell twice as many vegetables. And, you know, we want to chip away at hunger and food deserts in communities.”

2. The Hoop House Bill

The Hoop House Bill would change the zoning laws in Illinois so that residents wouldn’t be restricted from constructing season extension or crop protection devices, also known as hoop houses.

“If people are growing food for themselves they should be able to have temporary structures that allow that, and we need to change the state law to allow that,” Moran Stelk said.

Hoop houses are round skeletal frames covered by clear plastic material that create an enclosed space used by farmers and gardeners to extend the growing season into colder months when needed.

The bill comes in response to backlash against restrictions in the City of Elmhurst that prevent home farmers from building temporary greenhouse structures on their property to grow food. Elmhurst resident Nicole Virgil prompted the need for the bill when the Elmhurst City Council said her family’s hoop house wasn’t up to code and that it needed to be removed.

Proponents say that this is ultimately an issue of food sovereignty and the right to grow food on an urban farmer’s own property.

3. Addressing Local Food Procurement

The Growing Local Food Procurement bill would redefine “local food” to include value added products that are produced in Illinois, even when some components come from out of state. This more practical definition would expand opportunities for local food producers to sell their products to state agencies seeking to reach 20% local food procurement by 2020.

“If you produce, like, a jelly and it’s mostly Illinois products but, like, the sugar is from out of state then the product doesn’t count toward our goal of local food,” Moran Stelk said, adding that the current definition of “local food” is prohibitively narrow in spite of Illinois’ efforts to localize food procurement.  “That’s kind of counterproductive. We want Illinois business and entrepreneurs and farmers to do well.”

4. Protecting Public Lands from Runoff Pollution

The state of Illinois rents some of the public lands that it owns to farmers, much of which is in close proximity to parks and sensitive waterways. “But we don’t require any kind of good conservation practices that would protect the soil and that would prevent soil erosion and agricultural pollution into really sensitive areas,” Moran Stelk said.

The Conservation on Public Land bill would empower the state to enact guidelines for sustainability practices, such as cover crops that would prevent runoff into local waterways.

Photo Source:   Photo Caption: Gulf of Mexico Deadzone shown in red, image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Photo Source:

Photo Caption: Gulf of Mexico Deadzone shown in red, image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


The runoff that comes from herbicides has contributed to a “dead zone” about the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico that has been too depleted of oxygen to sustain life. The law would require people who rent public land from the state of Illinois to be accountable  for the land they’re using, potentially preventing further issues with pollution of water sources.

5. Using the NLRS Resolution for Clean Water

The Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Resolution is a guide for state efforts to improve water quality as well as reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels in Illinois rivers, streams and lakes. The resolution was developed in collaboration between between environmental organizations, state and federal agencies, and offers a series of guidelines and management practices that can be used limit harmful pollution.

According to the IEPA,  Illinois contributes more phosphorus than any other state and is second  in nitrogen pollution to the Gulf’s dead zone with other major pollution coming from Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, and Indiana. The NLRS resolution includes voluntary measures for farmers to help reduce nutrient pollution in waterways and the ocean.

Illinois has until 2025 to reduce phosphorus levels by 25% and nitrogen levels by 15%. If the state fails to meet those goals, the federal EPA would step in to enforce the reductions. “That will be really painful for everyone,” said Moran Stelk.

The Impact of Local Food Lobby Day

Moran Stelk says the partnership Illinois Stewardship Alliance has with AUA and the people who carpool down to Springfield each year is extremely important to the success of the bills they lobby for each year. “In addition to those that are most directly affected like farmers, the next most important messengers are constituents of the legislator,” she said. “It's really impactful when a state legislator from Chicago sees that, like, someone came all the way to Springfield to talk to them about these issues. It’s more impactful when it comes from their own constituency.”

Local Food Lobby Day is from 9:00AM to 5:00PM in Springfield, Illinois. Information on how to get involved and how to carpool from Chicago with AUA can be found on the Illinois Stewardship Alliance website.