Quit picking at your food. People in Chicago are scrambling for a chance to get their mitts on it. Chicagoans buy $500 million of organic food per year, yet a study by the Illinois Department of Agriculture and the USDA found that only 5% of the grub is grown in Illinois.
So the crusade is on to haul more locally grown products to Chicago, where "local" is defined as within 250 miles of the city. That makes southern Wisconsin an obvious target.
Meanwhile, demand for community-supported agriculture shares in the Madison area is strong. More than 2,500 CSA shares from 34 farms were sold during the 2008 growing season, according to Kiera Mulvey, director of the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC). The willingness of health insurers to pay a rebate of $50 to $300 to CSA customers fuels a big chunk of the Madison-area demand. There's talk in Chicago of pushing for similar incentives, but if that happened, the current CSA supply would probably need to expand to meet the anticipated demand from that metro area.
The courtship between Wisconsin farmer and Chi-town restaurateur began in the 1990s, spearheaded by celebrated chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill and Jim Slama, founder of Conscious Choice magazine. Today more than 40 Chicago restaurants, most high-end, buy from 20 Home Grown Wisconsin farms.
Sponsors of the recent FamilyFarmed Expo in downtown Chicago included the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which bused in more than two dozen people who grow, market or manufacture food in Wisconsin. Others, including Tony and Dela Ends of Scotch Hill Farm in Brodhead, were vendors.
The expo's workshops, trade show and chatter nurture producer-buyer relationships. Expect similar efforts to be fueled by the recently passed Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Act, which will encourage production and increased availability of local/organic food in Illinois.
Other developments in cross-border demand:
- Chicago's Downtown Farmstand opened in October at 66 E. Randolph St., just off of Michigan Avenue. The small and seasonal shop sells veggies, fruits and local food products. Vendors include Wisconsin farmers and cheesemakers.
- Green Monkey (greenmonkeyfoods.com)is a new business that prepares brown-bag lunches of local/organic food for Chicago children. Parents typically pay the business $5 per meal, delivered to their child at school. Among a typical week's entrées: a tall-grass-beef meatball sandwich or a veggie burger, served with orange slices, carrots and dip. Add organic juice for 75 cents and an organic cookie for 50 cents. Green Monkey has used the FamilyFarmed Expo to find Wisconsin farm partners.
- King's Hill Farm (kingshillfarm.com), of Mineral Point, will use the Chicago Botanic Garden as a drop-off point for CSA shares in 2009. Farmers Joel and Jai Kellum will offer 500 shares to Chicagoans; registration already has begun. The couple find it appealing to deliver their harvest to just one spot that reaches a large audience. They sold 190 CSA shares (most to Minnesotans) while living in the Viroqua area, but they relocated after floods destroyed their farm in June. It was Chicago's FamilyFarmed.org that connected the Kellums with a Mineral Point farm.
The à la card (alacardchicago.com) is a 52-card deck of "chef-driven" Chicago restaurants that use local ingredients; some use Wisconsin products. Consumers pay $30 to save $10 per meal; restaurants are included by invitation only.
"It's not really about the $10 savings - it's about exploring new restaurants" and rewarding those that use local foods, by marketing them as one, says à la card co-founder Natasha Liberman.
In the high- and low-brow mix are Hot Doug's (hotdougs.com), where sausage choices include elk, and fries are prepared in duck fat, and Restaurant Naha (naha-chicago.com), whose chef won a 2008 James Beard Award. Manny's Deli, where Barack Obama made news by picking up corned beef recently, also makes the cut.
- Natural Direct (naturaldirect.com) gathers natural food products and makes home deliveries from Waukegan to Chicago Heights to DeKalb. That's a wide radius, and co-owner Sid Siegel says the four-year-old service works with at least eight Wisconsin food producers. Customers order individual items or buy a $40-$50 assorted fruit/veggie box.
- Whole Foods is seeking more local foods for its shelves. Laurie Tatreau of Omaha began her work as "Midwest local forager" a year ago. She helps small-scale food producers navigate the system from farm to store shelf; more than 100 new products - milk, honey, granola, crackers - are the result.
Is there enough local food to go around? No problem, says Kara Kasten of Sassy Cow Creamery of Columbus, Wis., which has added cream, ice cream, half-and-half and churn cream (it's like butter) to its product line. Even so, Sassy Cow's creamery processes only 20% of the farm's milk. "The rest goes to Dean," Kasten says.
Kiera Mulvey of MACSAC also is not bothered by the mushrooming demand for local fare: "This is a good place to be with our family farms and will cause us to initiate more projects." What is possible? "Our best scenario would provide better access to land preserved in perpetuity for organic agriculture and better financial, technical and community incentives to attract, train and retain new farmers."