When neighborhood politics threatened to derail the Logan Square Farmers' Market earlier this month, more than 100 people showed up at City Hall in protest. The issues at stake—which involved allegations of improper activity on one side and abuses of aldermanic power on the other— were, frankly, murky. But as the worry and outrage spread one Facebook post at a time, more and more people added their voices to the ruckus. Logan Square loved its farmers' market, goddammit, and it was ready to go to the mat to keep it on track for its seventh season.
Happily, that storm appears to have passed—the market got its permit, and is set to open June 5. But the uproar made one thing clear: people are hungry to talk about food.
Five years ago, if you asked someone about the local food system, you'd probably have been met with a blank stare. Now access to healthy, affordable food is an issue on ever-more lips, as neighbors start community gardens, cooks seek out sustainably farmed pork, and parents try to get school lunches that don't suck into Chicago Public Schools. Across the city people want to get involved with food issues—but what do they do when there's no immediate crisis at hand?
If you're Matt Sussman, you start a neighborhood food council. Sussman, who works at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, had read Mark Bittman's columns on creative solutions to food-access issues in Philadelphia, and he'd heard about New York City initiatives like the Green Carts Program, which licenses pushcart entrepreneurs to sell fresh produce in so-called food deserts. But while it seemed to him like there was a lot of energy in Chicago, he says, "My impression was that at a city level those cities had taken steps to make this stuff happen that weren't being taken here."
He's right. Like any big city Chicago is so large, and so heterogeneous, that consensus is difficult to achieve. While urban farming may be a hot issue on the west side, in Little Village the most pressing concern might be bilingual nutrition programs. Layer a cryptic city bureaucracy on top of that and even the smallest victory can be exhaustingly hard-won. Hundreds of groups may be tackling local food issues at the grassroots level, but getting them all at the same table is a challenge.
Toward that end, in 2010 the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council, helmed by Growing Power's Erika Allen, launched a project to canvass the city and seed a handful of neighborhood-based food councils that might, in Allen's words, "give a voice to the folks who are working on the ground."
In the last decade food policy councils have emerged nationwide as a way to give citizens a stake in shaping an alternative food system at a level beyond individual consumer choice. Mark Winne, cofounder of the national Community Food Security Coalition and author of Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin' Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture, describes them as a sort of fictional "Department of Food" that can help government better understand issues that currently fall through the cracks. (In Chicago, for example, food policy decisions are spread, raggedly, among the departments of zoning, business affairs, public health, special events, and just about anyone else with skin in the game.) Participants may not agree 100 percent of the time, says Allen, but a neighborhood council is "a space where everyone can come together and everyone's projects can flourish."
In that vein, on the day Rahm Emanuel took office, 16 people convened in a back room at the Center for Neighborhood Technology on North Avenue for the first meeting of the Northwest Food Council, representing Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square. Maybe half those present had done time already in the policy trenches, such as Logan Square Kitchen owner Zina Murray. Others identified themselves simply as interested neighbors.
Around long tables, they talked about the urban agriculture ordinance pending before the City Council, about West Humboldt Park's Healthy Corner Stores project, about the Logan Square market. The mission of the meeting was vague—but that was part of the plan.
When she first helped start the North Lakefront Council, says dietitian Bettina Tahsin, she was a little frustrated by the lack of direction from CFPAC and Allen, who firmly believes that each council needs to find its own path. But Tahsin's come to see this hands-off approach as a good thing. "Neighborhood councils take the shape of whatever the people involved are interested in," she says. On the north side that means organizing against the proposed Lakeview Wal-Mart and signing people up for the Greater Chicago Food Depository's June 25 Hunger Walk. "Urban farming and community gardens are less of an issue up here," says Tahsin, "because the land just isn't there."
Just how clearly the voices of the people might get heard in the corridors of power is still an open question, as the relationships between the neighborhood councils, CFPAC, and City Hall remain a work in progress. But Erika Allen served on Emanuel's transition team, and when the then-candidate included a food policy plank in his campaign platform, hopeful activists all over town swooned. As one person at the May 16 meeting pointed out, with a mix of optimism and fatigue, "The game changed today."
The next meeting of the North Lakefront Council is set for June 9; register at tinyurl.com/3j3zap8. The next meeting of the Northwest Food Council is tentatively set for June 20; contact email@example.com to get on the mailing list. And the first meeting of a Logan Square-specific council took place May 24; for more on that e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For general info see the CFPAC website at chicagofoodpolicy.org.