February is usually a dynamic and busy time when it comes to politics, policy and legislation here in Springfield at the Capitol. 2015 will be no different and with a new Republican Governor taking the reins of state government riding a promise to "shake up Springfield" while Democrats still hold super-majorities in both the House and the Senate it might be even more of a dynamic year than usual. Illinois' financial situation is already bad, throw in the fact that the automatic drop in the state income tax rate which took place on January 1st creates a several billion dollar hole in the state finances, things could get really messy and ugly quick.
But that's a whole other story, this column is about food and farm policy, and while it's really hard to predict what will happen and what, if any, of the thousands of bills that will be introduced at the Illinois General Assembly this year will impact the growing local food and sustainable agriculture movement, there are some things that are known. I will use the remaining paragraphs to highlight a few legislative happenings I know are on the horizon:
- Cottage Food - Representative Mike Tryon will be introducing legislation aimed at expanding Illinois' Cottage Food Law. For those who don't know about it, Illinois' Cottage Food law was created in 2011, changing the state food safety laws to allow farmers and entrepreneurs to make certain non-potentially hazardous foods such as baked goods, jams and jellies in their home kitchens to sell at farmers markets. Prior to that it was illegal to make any food products in a home kitchen to sell to the public for commercial purposes. When it was originally passed it was one of only a dozen or so laws, now there are 42 states that have some sort of cottage food law with many of them being more liberal than Illinois' narrow law. Representative Tryon will be introducing legislation this year that aims to expand the narrow list of allowed cottage food products and to allow those products to be sold on-farm and through CSA's in addition to at farmers markets.
- Coop Law - Last year the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation that made some small but important updates to the Illinois law that governs food/grocery type co-ops like Common Ground increasing the level of financial support co-op members can contribute to their co-op. The original law in Illinois governing food co-op was written in the early 1900s and had not been updated since! Over the summer, fall and winter, since that bill was passed and signed into law, a coalition of organizations, current co-ops and forming co-ops began working together to develop legislation to re-write the whole law governing food/grocery type co-ops in Illinois.
- "Double-up Bucks" SNAP Incentives - Following years of successful SNAP (Food Assistance) incentive programs at farmers markets across the country, like the Urbana Market on the Square's, where each SNAP dollar would be matched at some level usually 1 to 1; the 2014 Farm Bill created a new SNAP incentive grant program, known as the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program. The down side of the new federal program is that it requires the market or organization applying for the grant to provide a 50% match. Here in Illinois a coalition led by the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity, the American Heart Association and the Experimental Station in Chicago has formed to try and get a small state SNAP incentive program created that could provide grants to serve as the full or partial match to prospective federal funding. That coalition is most likely going to be introducing legislation this spring for that very purpose!
Those three legislative ideas listed above are just a few of the likely food and farm related bills that are bound to surface at the Illinois General Assembly this spring and without the support of civically engaged citizens at the grassroots level ideas are all they will likely ever be. Good food and farm policy that supports small family farms, local food systems and sustainable agriculture will not happen on their own; they require farmers and consumers to “Move Beyond the Fork,” and get engaged in the legislative process.
If you want to get involved in supporting positive food and farm policy please consider joining Illinois Stewardship Alliance for our annual Local Food Awareness Day at the Capitol on March 25th 2015 – Save the Date! Check Illinois Stewardship Alliance’s website www.ilstewards.org for more information.