Thursday, February 11, 2010

Desire for local, organic food leads to Common Ground Food Co-op

Desire for local, organic food leads to Common Ground Food Co-op

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Food is often a subject of conversation at my house because my family takes great pleasure in cooking and eating. Lately that conversation has centered on where our food comes from, thanks in part to our viewing of the 2009 film Food, Inc. This documentary describes how consolidation in the food industry has diminished the control American farmers exercise over the way they operate, and filled grocery stores with food products of questionable value.

I’ve also been revisiting recent books by Michael Pollan on the difficulty of eating well in a world dominated by industrial food production—The Omnivore’s Dilemma(2006), In Defense of Food (2008) and Food Rules (2009). I come away from Pollan’s writing with a renewed sense of why it’s important to seek out good food, by which I mean food that’s enjoyable to eat and produced with regard for the health of people and the environment.

The thing is, neither I, nor my spouse--who, to give credit where credit is due, does most of our shopping--want to make choosing what to buy and eat its own occupation. (Except maybe on Saturday mornings when the Market at the Square in Urbana is running.)

How much of our decision making can we hand over to someone else? I recently put this question to Jacqueline Hannah, who is the general manager of the Common Ground Food Co-op in Urbana.

I was happy to be reminded that my values align well with the values of the Co-op, which according to its mission, “promotes local and organic production, fosters conscious consumerism, and builds community.” This means as long as Hannah and her buyers do their work conscientiously, they’re doing much of the work I don’t want to bother with—but not all.

Hannah pointed out that even with the adoption of a formal policy on how to make buying decisions, which is in now the works, the people who decide what the Coop will stock face questions for which there are no black and white answers, just as consumers do. Take produce, for example, where foods that are both local and organic are not always available. Is the organic apple trucked in from the west coast preferable to the local apple that’s grown with the use of pesticides?

And what is “local,” anyway? Hannah noted that some other food coops define it as food that comes from within their state. Common Ground is leaning toward a definition based on mileage, since it would be unreasonable to prefer food from farther away in southern Illinois over food from closer by in Indiana just because the food from Indiana would cross a state line in transit.

If you haven’t been in to Common Ground you might be surprised at just how much local food is available there, even at this time of year. There are some things that keep well, of course, such as jams and honey. But there is also local produce, including spinach and carrots from Blue Moon Farms, and there are dairy products from Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury. The Co-op also carries meat from local farms and a wide range of bulk foods that allow consumers to buy only as much they need without a lot of wasteful packaging.

If you are interested in actually meeting some of the people who produce food locally, February offers a couple of wonderful opportunities.


Friday, February 12, noon-1:00 p.m. at the University YMCA. Wes Jarrell, interim director of the Environmental Change Institute will talk about how Prairie Fruit Farms, which he and his wife own, is working to become a model for others interested in small-scale diversified farming systems and building a vibrant local food system in central Illinois.

Friday, February 24, 5:30-7:00 p.m. at the Urbana Civic Center. Wide-ranging presentation on locally produced foods sponsored by Champaign County Net. Panelists include: Lisa Bralts, Urbana Farmers Market; Jacqueline Hannah, Common Ground Food Co-op; Dianne Moore, Moore’s Family Farm; Wes Jarrell, Prairie Fruits Farm; Thad Morrow, Bacaro Restaurant; Zach Grant, UI Sustainable Student Farm; Dawn Aubrey, UI Dining Facilities; Erin Harper, Engineers without Borders low-income community garden. This event is free and open to the public, but RSVP is requested, as space is limited. Call 531-2969 or e-mail


On the Web

Illinois Farm Direct Farmer to Consumer Directory. Farm Direct helps you find fresh, locally grown food by connecting you directly with Illinois farmers. A search tool that provides contact information about producers when you specify an area and product.

Transition Champaign County has a group for people interested in "efficient, sustainable production of food that can be consumed locally."