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Returning Food Production to Rural Food Deserts

Addressing Rural Food Deserts Through Community Owned Businesses, Cooperatives and Farm Entrepreneurs.

Photo of Michael Park
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Our vision for a new food system has been informed and influenced by our daily work with economic development agencies, including the Greater Peoria Economic Development Corporation, the Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Stewardship Alliance and many governmental agencies with whom we work closely.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Macomb, Illinois

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Central Rural Illinois moving along the Illinois River and covering an area of roughly 78,000 square Kilometers

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs has worked in downstate Illinois since 1989 providing technical assistance on issues such as housing, health, food, transportation and business development.  The IIRA leverages the assets of Western Illinois University to guide rural areas through community and economic development.  Many of our staff grew up in rural communities and understand their needs at a personal level.  Our organization is dedicated solely to the improved quality of life in rural communities.  All of our employees currently live and work in rural Ilinois communities.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Food deserts in the Midwest and other rural areas are a growing problem. The irony of the nation's farmland not having produce to eat should not go unnoticed.  Currently 50% of the corn produced in Iowa is used for Ethanol production.  The corn and beans must be processed before they can be consumed.  In their raw state they are used as animal feed. 

Rural populations in Illinois, like the rest of the U.S., are declining.  The rural population often feels marginalized in comparison to the Chicagoland area.   Poverty in many counties is higher than the state average.  A shrinking number of families can rely on agriculture for income. People in the area are proud of their agricultural traditions but will be the first to tell you it's a tough way to make a living.  

During the summer months a wall of corn or beans runs the 10 to 20 miles between small towns. All of the available land is used for Agricultural production.   But, many of these towns are either food deserts or food "swamps" with no fresh produce for sale.  The people are fiercely patriotic, loyal to their community and proud of their townships.  But they are finding it increasingly difficult to live there as jobs are scarce and local grocery stores are disappearing.  

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.


Currently the food system in rural Illinois consists of farmers growing increasing amounts of corn and soybeans for a decreasing share of the food dollar.  Many farmers have second jobs to cover healthcare expenses.  The food grown is inedible in it's raw state, and designed for processing into items like corn syrup sweeteners or Ethanol for automobiles.  The rivers, both the Mississippi and the Illinois, are overrun with invasive fish species and crowding out native species traditionally used as a food source.  At the same time many of the rural communities along the rivers and in farming communities are rural food deserts or food "swamps" as retail grocers leave these small towns of 1,000 – 5,000 people.  Large commercial food distributors find it too costly to deliver to these small communities.  This part of the country prides itself on feeding the world but the breadbasket of the world is starving for fresh food.


Invasive plant and fish species continue to out compete native species for the rivers and fields.  Large farming companies dominate the landscape with few local farm families left.  Climate change has shifted the corn and soybean production north and more of the Illinois acreage is planted in wheat, producing less income per acre.  As agricultural wealth and decision making has concentrated in companies that are located in cities the agricultural jobs are almost gone.  The population living in poverty in rural Illinois is nearly double that of urban Illinois.  All food sold in rural communities is shipped in from hundreds of miles away with most of it being highly process, low nutrition offerings at convenience and dollar stores. This pulls more income out of the rural economy.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision addresses the challenges of food deserts in farm communities by growing a self-reliant regional food system that will create jobs and provide fresh produce to these agrarian communities

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Rural Central Illinois will become an area of the country known for it's idealic country lifestyle full of economic opportunities in the regional food industry.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

How Our vision would address the important issues

What we are proposing is a robust food economy of small farm entrepreneurs and community owned businesses that fills the nutritional gaps in rural communities.  While different projects have looked at individual aspects of the rural food system, we are proposing a full system approach that grows the food economy from farm to distribution to retail sales.  People will begin to assume that small, rural communities might not have a supermarket but will have a small community store selling local fresh foods, much the same way they expect a small town to have a quaint dinner but probably not a chain restaurant.  This small industry approach will provide fresh food to the diets of rural Illinois where traditional grocery stores are closing and food deserts are growing.

Our vision is one in which entrepreneurship, much of it provided by an influx of Hispanic immigrants, creates an industry of small farmers using newer technologies such as hoop houses, passive solar, and deep winter greenhouses to provide fresh vegetables within a 50-100mile radius of their farms.  Small cattle, pork and poultry farms sell their animals to be processed and sold within a 100mile radius of the farm.  The value-added during processing is captured by the farmers and small processors.  And, local fish are returned to the diet through both management and usage of invasive Asian Carp, allowing other native fish to return and be consumed locally.

These food products are then sold in Community Owned Businesses run by local community groups and organized as cooperatives.  Food is provided to rural areas much the way electricity was provided these same areas in the early 1900’s.  In the early days of the electrical era many rural communities were left out because the economics of delivery power to a handful of customers didn’t make sense to the larger companies.  So rural farmers took on the challenge themselves creating rural electric cooperatives.  These local rural cooperatives filled a need not being met by the traditional business models.  The same can be done with food distribution that was done with electrical distribution.  These small food stores will be managed by a local board of directors, working much the same way as rural electric cooperatives currently do. Products bought and sold are decided upon by the community.

To connect the producers with the Community Owned Groceries a network of food hubs, essentially small distribution companies, are established.  These either take the business structure of a producer cooperative or are the outgrowth of a single small farm’s entrepreneurship.  They provide food distribution to areas not covered by large corporations and keep their delivery area small, in the range of 100-200 miles.  By delivering to Community Owned Grocers, small food markets, restaurants, hospitals and schools these smaller hubs are able to generate enough revenue to operate.  By remaining small in scale, they are able to reduce the expenses of transportation and supply chain management and turn a modest profit, with the goal being to support the agricultural producers in getting the product to market.

Economic Impact:

Through the creation of jobs in farming, processing and food sales in small scale businesses the average family income in rural Illinois can keep pace with the more urban areas of Illinois.  The population in rural areas can stabilized as professionals, concerned with work/life balance and wanting a rural lifestyle, can find employment in rural areas.  Enrollment in school systems will increase after years of rural consolidation bringing in a larger share of federal funding for education.  Local kids are able to envision a future living and working in their hometowns.  As regional specialties develop around local taste and environmental opportunity a market can be created for specialty foods in much the same way it is in parts of Europe.

Environmental Impact:

The reduction of heavy trucking from California and Mexico reduces automotive pollution.   The transition from traditional row-crop commercial agriculture to smaller edible food production-based farming has reduced the total, and more importantly the concentration, of chemicals being used in the food cycle from field to table.  Food monoculture is reduced as each county/area grows varietals that the local population prefer.  This diversity gives some stability to a food system that is currently reliant on a handful of crop varietals feeding the majority of people.

Dietary Impact:

The availability of fresh food improves the overall health of the population helping to reduce the increasing national healthcare costs.  Food deserts and food “swamps”, where the food offered is only through gas stations and dollar stores, are slowly eliminated. The elderly, who are the most vulnerable to health issues, can find foods prescribed to them by physicians within a 5-mile radius.  In some cases, these groceries are home delivered.  Children are able to learn about food from production to sales and all the way to their plate as local schools carry food from the local hub.  This food might have been grown by their parents or their friend’s parents.

Cultural Impact:

The small-town quality of life that was slipping away can be reinforced and celebrated.  Farming can be seen as a possible career path requiring a broad spectrum of knowledge.  As a byproduct of the need for farming families in small towns, Hispanic immigrants bringing farm knowledge and entrepreneurship are woven into the fabric of rural society in a way that massive hiring for low paying factory jobs could not do.  The population can be stabilized and the history of these communities preserved.

Technological Impact:

Originally local Ag farmers and producers will benefit from current advancements in Aquaponics and passive solar greenhouse technology to extend the planting season year-round.  As the economy grows new techniques will be developed in the field, with the help of Illinois’ university Ag departments scattered throughout the state.  These new, more efficient techniques are shared among local farmers through the producer cooperative food hubs as part of their ongoing business education.

Policy Impact:

 Illinois has had a policy of having 20% of state purchased food being produced in Illinois.  This goal is not being met because the food system does not offer enough products to meet the institutional demand at the volume needed.  This goal can be met by the aggregation of producer cooperative food hubs.  Increased policy changes can be made to encourage the purchase of state food products by larger national companies operating in the state, further increasing the market for regional products.  Policies, backed with economic incentives, can be created to control invasive species by processing them into food products that are consumed in local areas and exported from the communities.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email

Attachments (1)

Food System Vision Prize – Design Thinking narrative.pdf

A narrative in story form to describe our vision. For some reason I could not include it with the "Full Vision".


Join the conversation:

Photo of Gian Luca Bagnara

I will be glad to collaborate and find synergies between our visions / projects. Gian Luca

Photo of Alana Libow

Hi Michael Park - Welcome to the Food System Vision Prize!

Exciting to see your vision inspired by Social Farming for Sustainable Development -- Great to see bridges being built across the world.

How might your challenges and vision showcase your engagement with food system stakeholders/community members?

We look forward to seeing your updates.

Photo of Michael Park

Thanks for your comments Alana. I hope that our engagement with stakeholders shows in the understanding of how rural communities, both from a retail grocery standpoint and an Ag producer standpoint, view their situation and what they would like to see their communities look like. We engaged with financial lenders as well in order to understand what it is they feel needs to be done to make these food industry components viable again in rural Illinois.