CHICAGO — The City Produce Project, an effort to provide healthy foods to Chicago’s food deserts through homegrown vegetable crops, was derailed by Illinois’ budget woes this year, but organizers hope to revive the effort in 2012.
One of the project’s leaders, the University of Illinois extension service, had to back out after state-level budget cuts left it with insufficient staff.
“It was very difficult to proceed without them, so that’s why they put it on hold,” said Tricia Braid, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Corn Growers Association, another City Produce Project sponsor. “Things at the state just didn’t happen like they needed to in the spring.”
Still, Braid said the corn growers association was pleased with the project’s results in 2010, the effort’s inaugural year, and aims to grow crops again next spring in Chicago if there’s sufficient funding.
It isn’t known whether the Illinois extension service will participate, Braid said.
The corn growers will meet with extension officials in January to discuss the project, she said.
In 2010, the City Produce Project seeded a total of 5.5 acres on more than 16 sites around Chicago, including the garden at the Cook County Jail and a plot at the Chicago Agriculture High School on the South Side.
Despite heavy rains that forced the replanting of most crops, the project still harvested 20,000 pounds of beans, carrots, squash, sweet corn and other vegetables that were distributed by the Greater Chicago Food Depository to pantries around the city.
Monsanto Co. donated $100,000 and the seeds to the project in 2010, but elected to not participate this year, a company spokeswoman said.
The launch of the City Produce Project coincided with recent Obama administration initiatives to fight childhood obesity and make healthier foods more available to inner-city people who have limited access to fresh produce.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 13.5 million people, mostly in urban areas, live in food deserts where the nearest supermarket is at least a mile away.
In Cook County, which includes Chicago, about 145,000 people, or nearly 3% of the county’s population, live in food deserts.
The City Produce Project also can generate interest in agricultural jobs and help rural and urban communities better understand each other, Braid said.
The opportunity for Illinois farmers to learn more about local needs “has been a moving experience for many of them,” Braid said.