(Chicago, IL – June 10, 2020) The Chicago Region Food System Fund today announced a request for applications from non-profit organizations responding to the impacts of COVID-19 on Chicago region communities and the local food economy. This open call follows an initial round of $895,000 awarded to nine organizations responding to the immediate pandemic impacts on communities in Chicago and on food producers, processors, and distributors in the region. Later in 2020, the fund will shift its focus to long-term work toward a resilient, racially and economically just local food system. With an initial investment of $4.2M, the Chicago Region Food System Fund focuses on hunger and business disruption in the local food system—from production to processing to distribution to consumption—in an area approximately 200 miles from Chicago (about a day’s drive to/from the city). Priority will be given to organizations producing food in, and supplying food to, communities of color. Fresh Taste, fiscally sponsored by Forefront, manages the Fund. 

The first nine grant recipients of the Fund are:

  • Artisan Grain Collaborative, $50,000
  • Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Living, $120,000
  • Chicago Food Policy Action Council, $75,000
  • Chinese American Service League, $80,000
  • Green City Market, $125,000
  • Illinois Stewardship Alliance, $100,000
  • Plant Chicago, $25,000
  • Street Vendors Association of Chicago, $120,000
  • Urban Growers Collective, $200,000

Project descriptions follow at the end of this release.

“This initial round of grants represents the diversity of communities and approaches the Fund is designed to support,” said Karen Lehman, Chicago Region Food System Fund Manager and Fresh Taste Director. “Recipients are urban and rural, with strong representation from communities of color. They are at the cutting edge of response to the challenges—and opportunities for change—COVID-19 and the national movement for racial justice represent. We are confident that their efforts will make a tangible and important difference in the communities they serve, the food system, and the broader community.”

To apply, visit ChicagoRegionFoodFund.org. Before being considered to submit a full application, interested organizations will be asked to fill out an initial screening questionnaire. Only 501(c)(3) organizations are eligible to apply. Screening questionnaires can be submitted until July 29, 5 p.m. CT. Inquiries will be reviewed and funds disbursed on a rolling basis. From May through August, priority will be given to COVID-19 response and food system strengthening with priority given to work in communities of color. Beginning in September, the Fund will focus on building long-term resilience for a just future food system capable of handling shocks like COVID-19. The Fund will consider grants from $5,000 to $250,000.

Seven founding donors made the Chicago Region Local Food System Fund possible. They are The Builders Initiative, Food:Land:Opportunity (funded through the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust), Fresh Taste, Little Owl Foundation, The Lumpkin Family Foundation, Walder Foundation, and Walter Mander Foundation. The fund welcomes additional support. Visit ChicagoRegionFoodFund.org for more information.

“Once-in-a-century public health and economic shocks require robust investment,” said Lenore Beyer, Director of Conservation Initiatives at Kinship Foundation, which collaborates on Food:Land:Opportunity with The Chicago Community Trust. “A resilient local food system is good for Chicago on every level, from a secure supply-chain less subject to global disruptions to more nutritious food options that promote health.”

“In Chicago and across the country, COVID-19 has had the biggest impact on communities of color,” said Haven Leeming, Program Officer & Business Manager at The Builders Initiative. “The Fund will not only prioritize these communities, but will help to ensure that our local food system is more equitable in the future.”

“The regional food economy centered in and around Chicago is a vital market for rural farmers, food aggregators and processors across four surrounding states in the Upper Midwest,” said Daniel Doyle, Program Officer at the Lumpkin Family Foundation. “Equipping all points in the foodshed to adapt and function in the face of so much disruption ensures we prioritize support for what we have in order to build toward what we hope to see as both critical parts of an interconnected system and in service to smaller, local communities both urban and rural.”

In Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties, funding consideration includes nonprofits serving:

  • urban farmers;
  • food hubs/cooperatives;
  • farmers markets;
  • community organizations with close ties to informal community associations;
  • food businesses (processors, distributors, slaughterhouses, retail, restaurants, institutional providers);
  • food chain workers impacted by COVID-19 or at high risk of contracting the virus
  • emergency food system support;
  • and wasted food projects. 

Funding consideration in other regions of Illinois, southeast Wisconsin, northwest Indiana, and southwest Michigan is for nonprofits serving:

  • rural farmers,
  • food aggregation hubs,
  • and food processors 

that include the Chicago metropolitan area as part of their market.

This includes nonprofits supporting food chain workers impacted by COVID-19 or at high risk of contracting the virus.

Fresh Taste is a collaborative funder initiative committed to racial and economic equity and focused on changing the way food is grown, processed, distributed, and consumed in the Chicago region to promote healthy land, healthy people, and healthy communities. Fresh Taste’s vision is that residents of the Chicago region eat local fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meat, and dairy products produced through regenerative agriculture and brought to tables by local businesses. 

Forefront is Illinois’ membership association for nonprofits, grantmakers, advisors, public agencies, and their allies. They provide education, advocacy, thought leadership, and facilitate collective action around issues that are important to its members and to the sector. Forefront oversees and is responsible for all financial and legal activities of Fresh Taste.

“COVID-19 has placed severe demands on the food system and highlighted the delicate balance that exists between supply and demand,” said Jack Westwood, Senior Program Officer, Advancing Sustainability at the Walder Foundation. “Through these grants, we hope to build a more resilient and sustainable food system that provides for all Chicago communities, reduces its environmental impact, and helps local food businesses thrive.”

Initial Round Project Descriptions

Artisan Grain Collaborative created the Neighbor Loaves program in late March, in which people purchase loaves of bread from local bakeries made with sustainable local grain which the bakery then donates to area food pantries. This supports local businesses, keeps people employed, bolsters rural economies and feeds people. The program has already donated over 7,000 loaves of bread. AGC has recently expanded the program to include Tortillas Comunitarias.

In response to COVID-19, Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Living in Pembroke, IL—the historically African American farming region of Illinois near Kankakee—will operate a mobile food market focused on the South Suburbs, which have dramatic health disparities and fewer resources for healthy food. In addition to its Rx Food Bags, BOC will deliver food boxes in collaboration with Gourmet Gorilla’s USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program on the South Side of Chicago and in the South Suburbs.

Following the Illinois shelter-in-place order, Chicago Food Policy Action Council began convening and coordinating efforts to respond to the impacts of COVID-19 on Chicago region food systems and communities. CFPAC developed a website and has convened numerous weekly working groups focused on local producers, emergency food, small business disruption, and food chain workers.

Based in Chicago’s Chinatown, the Chinese American Service League has responded to COVID-19 by hiring their Culinary Training Program graduates to prepare culturally appropriate food for home delivery to seniors. Seniors in the Chinatown community were going hungry, with recent closures of communal meal programs and fear to venture outside to buy groceries. CASL now prepares 4,500 meals/week to deliver to 300 seniors’ homes, sourcing food from local wholesalers that have been severely affected by restaurant closings. 

Green City Market was the first farmers market in Chicago to work with its vendors to launch a virtual marketplace in response to mounting public health and safety concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Green City Market partnered with WhatsGood to launch an e-commerce app platform that provides a central ordering platform for all participating vendors, and it streamlines the aggregation and delivery process and expenses, aiding farmers struggling to adapt.

The Illinois Stewardship Alliance Farmer Resiliency Initiative will help Illinois farms invest in collaborative relationships and critical infrastructure to scale up and adapt their business models to the rapidly increased demand for locally-produced food in response to the pandemic. The initiative is intended to support on-farm improvements and collaborative marketing structures among farmers who needed to pivot from primarily restaurant sales to selling direct-to-consumers when the shelter-in-place order went into effect.

Plant Chicago will partner with local growers to get low cost produce to Link customers on the southwest side of Chicago, through a combination of weekly produce box pick up services and matching dollars for produce for Link customers. Current partners include The Urban Canopy and Cedillo’s Fresh Produce, and more local farms will be brought on as the market and growing season gets underway. Through the Chicago Farmers Market Collective, Plant Chicago will also provide support for other market locations to partner with other small growers to increase equitable food access on the south side of Chicago.

The Street Vendors Association of Chicago (SVAC) represents 150 street vendors who have been especially hard hit by COVID-19.  SVAC established a cooperative kitchen vendors could use to produce their food with higher food safety standards than they could meet at home. Vendors have been producing food and giving it out freely in the community in solidarity with those who need it. SVAC has been paying the cost of ingredients. Funds will be used to pay rent and food to be distributed in the community.

Urban Growers Collective is leveraging existing and emerging resources in Chicago and the metro area’s communities of color (primarily south and west of Chicago’s Loop) to provide food in response to COVID-19. UGC is launching a three-month pilot plan to improve community well-being and health through safely providing nutritionally dense and culturally relevant meals prepared by emerging food cooperatives. UGC will also deliver local and wholesale fresh produce in these communities and distribute food boxes in cooperation with Gourmet Gorilla’s USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program. Through these activities, UGC will employ community residents, grow partnerships, and expand food growing spaces.

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