Southland rep's farm act aims to bring fresh produce to area food deserts
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly's diverse district boasts some of the world's richest farmland, as well as Chicago neighborhoods and south suburbs where access to foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables is limited.
The Matteson Democrat, along with U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, are co-sponsors of legislation that would relax a crop insurance restriction that, in turn, would allow farmers to devote more acreage to fruits and vegetables.
The aim of the Feeding America through Farm Flexibility Act is to improve access to fresh foods in areas that have been labeled food deserts, according to Kelly.
"There are people in my district who live 20 miles from farms but simply can't get fresh fruits and vegetables for their families," Kelly said in a news release.
The legislation would allow farmers to grow fruits and vegetables on an additional 5 percent of their acreage without a crop insurance penalty, provided the food is sold or donated in food deserts, according to Kelly's office.
According to her office, an estimated 600,000 people in the Chicago metro area live in areas defined as food deserts. Many south suburbs that are in Kelly's 2nd District have seen supermarkets close their doors in recent years, and in some areas the neighborhood convenience store may be the only source of groceries such as produce.
The Illinois Farm Bureau is on board with the measure, according to Richard Guebert, the bureau's president. In Kelly's release, he said the legislation is a "win-win" for both farmers as well as consumers living in underserved urban and rural areas.
It would enable farmers "to diversify their operations at a time of low commodity prices," he said in the release.
Kelly's district stretches from the tip of Chicago's Hyde Park community south to Kankakee, and includes 1,200 farms, according to James Lewis, a spokesman for Kelly. Suburbs in the district include Calumet Park, Dolton, Harvey, Momence, Peotone, Phoenix and Riverdale.
"Having this diverse district leads her to come up with these sorts of ideas," Lewis said, referencing the new legislation.
"It links the urban problem, and the suburban problem (of food deserts)" with a source of fresh food, he said.
Being able to buy fresh food that is locally produced is appealing to consumers, and farmers like the idea of being able to devote more acreage to fruits and vegetables knowing there is demand for them and they can fetch a better price than for commodities such as corn, he said.
"The carbon footprint is smaller because (produce) wasn't shipped" a long distance, he said.
The legislation was introduced Wednesday, but it could be the fall before any movement on the bill takes place, Lewis said.
"Everyone we have talked to about this bill has been super supportive," he said.
Having Bost, a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, as co-sponsor will be a plus, Lewis said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 23.5 million Americans currently live in food deserts, and, according to the department's Food Desert Locator, Illinois has many food deserts, Kelly's office said.