Removing a food desert in Central Illinois: Mt. Pulaski charts a path to fresh food access
The term ‘food desert’ most often evokes images of residents in urban communities without access to a full-service grocery store. It seems incongruous that one would exist in the middle of the nation’s ‘bread basket.’ However, it is estimated that as much as 20 percent of rural counties are ‘food desert’ counties, meaning residents must travel more than 10 miles to the nearest grocery store.1,2
This blog covers the journey of one small, central Illinois community from food desert to emerging food oasis.3 Although still relatively early in the implementation stages of their efforts, some key, transferable insights have emerged:
- While external, often federal, support is often necessary, it does not always come in the form of financial assistance.
- Local planning efforts must be inclusive, transparent, and welcome the input of all residents.
- Objectives must be attainable and realistic, and may happen in stages.
Mt. Pulaski, population 1,500, is located in central Illinois about 25 miles northeast of the state capitol. Since 2016, the nearest grocery store has been located more than 15 miles away. The idea for a food cooperative began when a group of local residents decided to organize to develop grocery options closer to home. These early planning efforts were bolstered when, in early 2019, Mt. Pulaski was one of 15 communities nationwide to receive technical assistance through the Local Foods, Local Places (LFLP) program sponsored jointly by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Northern Border Regional Commission. Among other objectives, the LFLP program strives to “improve access to local healthy food,” specifically in rural areas.4
A LFLP Steering Committee (“the Committee”) was formed consisting of residents with the time and resources needed to develop a plan for bringing healthy foods back to Mt. Pulaski. The aim of the Committee was to identify community goals and desired results.
In August 2019, the Committee presented its work to a convening of more than 100 residents. The objective of this meeting was to seek input and build consensus around the Committee’s progress and create accountability on a workable timeline to build a local, sustainable healthy food strategy for Mt. Pulaski. Tom Martin, Mt. Pulaski Economic Development and Planning Board chairman, shared, “I will admit as part of the community leadership, I was a little unsure of the direction that these meetings and discussions would ultimately lead us. There are always many ideas on how to move forward, which are sometimes difficult to coalesce into a set of common goals that all can support.”
After two days of intense discussion and group exercises to facilitate sharing and vet ideas, residents agreed to a set of goals and outcomes that now serve as a roadmap toward improving local food access. These include:
Goal 1 – Boost town square and regional economic revitalization, and create new opportunities for local food entrepreneurs by establishing a local food hub and food co-op.
Goal 2 – Create a community garden to support a local food hub, Market on the Hill food co-op, and a local healthy living initiative.
Goal 3 – Increase opportunities for producers and buyers by leveraging existing connections and relationships.
Goal 4 – Increase participation in healthy eating and active living activities, especially among youth and seniors.
As of January 2020, the residents of Mt. Pulaski are well on their way to achieving two of the four goals outlined through the LFLP process (above). The biggest endeavor was the creation of a food cooperative. Market on the Hill5 is a community-owned grocery store, meaning local residents raised start-up capital by investing as shareholders. These stockowners will determine the store’s future direction and growth through democratic vote. Renovations to a storefront on the historic town square are underway, as is the hiring of a general manager. Market on the Hill is set to open May 2020.
A related goal was the establishment of a garden to collaborate with Market on the Hill. Launched in the fall of 2019, Hilltop Community Gardens began with garlic and winter lettuce, as well as hoop house plantings. The vision for Hilltop Community Gardens is to both supply fresh produce to the cooperative and bring nutritious options to the local nursing home, schools, and restaurants. The nine-acre space includes plots to rent.
According to Bill Thomas, Logan County Economic Development director, “Mt. Pulaski has recognized it needs professional expertise, sought it, welcomed it, and is effectively leveraging it to achieve its goals and outcomes [via the LFLP technical assistance grant]. They have also garnered widespread community support. Mt. Pulaski leaders have reached out to and included all segments of the community when they devised their strategy. With a broad base of support comes an increased probability of success.”
With both Market on the Hill and Hilltop Community Gardens soon to be fully operational, Mt. Pulaski and nearby communities in Southern Logan County will benefit from healthy food and an expected boost to the local economy through co-ownership and support of local farmers, as well as (potentially) expanding into food processing and distribution. These new entities also have the ability to foster discussions on healthy eating, starting with local schools and the regional hospital.
2Flournoy, Rebecca, and Sarah Treuhaft, 2010, “Healthy Food, Healthy Communities: Promising Strategies to Improve Access to Fresh, Healthy Food and Transform Communities,” PolicyLink report, available at https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/foodtrust/pages/533/attachments/original/1556913113/hfhc-short-final.pdf?1556913113.
3The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago has studied and raised awareness about the social determinants of health, which includes access to healthy food and supporting other food-related systems that promote community revitalization since 2013. For further information on healthy communities in the Seventh District, visit https://www.chicagofed.org/region/community-development/community-economic-development/healthy-communities-in-the-seventh-district.
4LFLP “supports locally led, community-driven efforts to protect air and water quality, preserve open space and farmland, boost economic opportunities for local farmers and businesses, improve access to healthy local food, and promote childhood wellness.” For further information on LFLP, visit https://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/local-foods-local-places.