The 6th Annual Chicago Food Policy Summit

AKA Family Farmed Expo Friday Recap

Friday could reasonably have been termed the “everything insiders” day, because it still wasn’t geared toward the general public (aka: me), but there was a lot more going on. It wasn’t all about money, Friday had a “trade show track” for farmers and restaurateurs, a “school food track” with two sets of discussions going, and a “food policy track”. All of this was under the banner of “The 6 th Annual Chicago Food Policy Summit.”

So, what did the summit bring? For me, a lot of focus on food access, and the opportunity for a lot of help with my new volunteering gig, at the “Pilsen Community Market”. These things were exactly what I was looking for.

The day started, again, with coffee (but no tea!) and an opening panel of speakers. Some of whom were quite interesting, and some who seemed to have nothing to say. And one who was amazingly interesting and engaging. Too interesting and engaging, as I was so caught up in just LISTENING that I didn’t actually take any notes, and so now am not sure what she said…

So, some general tidbits from the opening speakers:
# Like Santa Barbara California, Illinois produces copious amounts of food, and ships most of it out. In fact, if I recall correctly, they coincidentally both only grow ~4% of the food they eat, even with this copious food production1. Twitter was abuzz saying that 98% of what IL produces is shipped out of state, but I’m not sure of this statistic.

# Illinois is trying to focus more on getting food grown in Illinois consumed in Illinois. According to Warren Ribley, of the Illinois Chamber of Comerce, the Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Act of 2007 has resulted in pressure or a directive for a “grown in Illinois label” and directs state agencies to implement plans to source 20% of their food from Illinois by 2020. I’m not sure this is aggressive, or the best route to do things, but it was interesting.

# Ken Kaplen of the MIT Collaborative Initiatives basically just said that everyone’s beginning to realize that food & health care costs are utterly intertwined, so everyone’s ready for a change. “Everyone” is mostly industry, from what I can tell. Though I don’t think he discounts random “general public” like me.

# Kathy Lawrence of School Food FOCUS was the most energizing and interesting speaker, though she’s also the one I failed to take notes on. I most liked, though her point that “how we define our problems determines our solutions”, and thus we need to make sure we’re addressing problems, and not just symptoms of the problems. As regards to hunger, defining whether the problem is “making sure everyone has enough calories” or “making sure everyone has enough nutrients” or even “making sure everyone has enough healthful food” can lead to very different solutions even though they seem like slightly different ways to articulate the same problem.

Moving on to the panels, I attended only things in the “food policy track”. This was partially due to some confusion on my part about what I was welcome to join in, based on the ticket I purchased, and partially due to my own interests.

The first panel I attended was on getting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) acceptance into farmers markets. I did this mostly for my own edification, as I have recently started volunteering for a small market near my house that does not currently take SNAP cards, but would like to. This had a lot of good information for me, including ways to assess if your market is a reasonable place to be accepting SNAP, but I think would generally be boring for my readers. So, I’m going to leave it at this, but if you want more info, e-mail me or comment and we’ll talk.

By far the most interesting panel to my readers, I think, would be the discussion about Chicago’s proposed zoning updates to include urban agriculture. I think this mostly because there was a lot of interesting tidbits about what’s going on in the world of zoning for urban agriculture in the US.

The first speaker, Roger Cooley, basically got up and laid out the basics of urban agriculture zoning in six other major cities: San Fransico, Seattle, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Kansas City and Nashville. (I presume Kansas City, MO but he did not actually specify.)

The highlights:
# Almost all the other cities allow for commercial growing in all zones, but some make a distinction between a community garden and a commercial farm.

# Most allow both community gardens & commercial farms to sell on-site, though each city has it’s own specific regulations about what that means.

# All have some square footage definitions for “accessory buildings” (things like tool sheds).

# None make a comment about trucking in compost from off-site.

# The cities have wildly different size regulations for community gardens & commercial farms, with some having no regulations on size at all.

# In general, indoor gardens and rooftop gardens are not addressed. Except for Seattle, the definitions and requirements for livestock are also not clear.

# From what I could tell, Cooley also said no city had made a comprehensive change that spanned the full zoning code, which left places for confusion and trouble.

The second and fourth speakers, Amy Beltimacchi of Root Riot and Paul Hardej of City Micro Farms, mostly spoke about their current work (the community garden she recently founded and his indoor farm), but touched on how the proposed changes to the Chicago zoning code would affect them. For Beltimacchi, the biggest impact is that the proposed maximum limit to installations such as hers is only half the size of her community garden. For Hardej, the impacts are that his farm is in all ways illegal right now, and will not become legal later because the zoning code does not address aeroponics and hydroponics. Furthermore, fish (which he farms) are considered livestock, and would be explicitly disallowed under the proposed ordinance change. This is despite his set-up being fully licensed and in compliance with all state laws regarding agriculture, aeroponics and hydroponics.

The third speaker was Kevin Pierce of City Farm in Chicago, and he basically gave the run-down of the current proposal. This is good because the panel members all said this ordinance could be found on the Chicago City Clerk’s website, but didn’t give enough info for me to figure out how to search it out.


Anyway, the basic gist of what he said is that there is, like in other cities, a failure on the part of Chicago to make sure this ordinance is comprehensive across the full zoning code. For example, commercial plots may only be allowed on commercially zoned land. This makes a certain amount of sense until you read in another section that every business in a commercially zoned plot must be inside. (And indoor farming is not addressed.) This code change is also touted as a solution to “ugly” unused vacant land, but the vast majority of vacant land is in residential zones, which prevents a substantial number of potential participants (such as Pierce’s own City Farm).

The third panel I went to was on food access and how it impacts a community’s health. It was an interesting discussion, and I learned some surprising things (assuming they’re true), such as that Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the nation (possibly the most segregated), however it didn’t seem to get very far. Mostly it seemed like we spun our wheels trying to discuss how we can best improve food access in areas that are currently food deserts.

It was interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying, as I felt like I walked in with no more clue about how food access could be increased than before. I wonder how the three panelists felt about the conversation.

I also wonder what I missed out on in the second round of discussion on the zoning discussion. But I’m sure I will hear and learn more as the zoning changes come back out of committee. And, of course, there’s a lot of discussion about how a new Chicago mayor might influence all of this.

Stay tuned!

fn1. Sources: Santa Barbara County numbers came from Dr. David Cleveland’s (UCSB) presentation at Edible Institute 2011, Jan 2011 (a tweet from me with his numbers can be found “here”: – not the best source, but I can’t tell if his presentation is online anywhere.) and Illinois numbers come from Warren Ribley’s (IL Chamber of Commerce) speech at Family Farmed Expo, March 2011 (my tweet regarding that can be found “here”: – same issue about its validity as a source).