Five Local-Food Innovators Helping Chicago Eat Sustainably

6 projects building Chicago’s supply of sustainable #localfood: Catching up w/#FoodToMarket finalists Tweet This

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On December 6, students and staff at Humboldt Park’s Clemente High School opened the lids on their first boxes of fresh, affordable, locally grown food.

The delivery was part of the new Farm to Community Food Box Program: the big idea awarded the prize in the Food to Market Challenge.

In January 2016, Food:Land:Opportunity—a collaboration between Kinship Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust—put out a call for solutions to expand the Chicago region’s local food market. Twenty-four teams submitted proposals to this innovative award competition, vying for a prize of $500,000 to put their idea into action.

At a live final event showcasing five finalists, the Food to Market Challenge judges selected Team Leverage as the winner. A collaboration among FarmLogix, Top Box Foods and This Old Farm, this team presented the idea of leveraging delivery networks to bring fresh produce from more than 100 small family farms to underserved neighborhoods in Chicago—using Chicago Public Schools as delivery sites.

CPS students, their families and other members of the community can order food boxes online and then pick up at a nearby school. The program will expand to at least 10 school sites this year, chosen for their location in neighborhoods that lack access to healthy and affordable food.

A student in ROTC uniform stands beside three adults in a school building
In December, Humboldt Park’s Clemente High School became the first distribution site for the Farm to Community Food Box program, bringing affordable and healthy produce to neighborhoods where access is limited. The program will expand in 2018 to ten additional Chicago Public Schools locations.


Delivering food boxes is a model that Top Box Foods has been using for almost six years to bring healthy food directly into the communities where options are limited. As a result of the Challenge, Top Box has been able to expand their box offering to include meat that is locally and sustainably sourced.

The meat is supplied by This Old Farm, a network of more than 100 protein farmers based in Colfax, Indiana. Owner Jessica Smith joined Team Leverage as a way to expand into the Chicago market. The food box programs are now creating the demand that she needs to build her pool of farmers, increasing the amount of local, sustainable meat in the Chicago region.

The Challenge award also allowed This Old Farm to scale their operations: building out much-needed cooler space, a retail store, and activating technology to support food transparency. Smith said, “Technology has been a big investment area for us. The award allowed us to build out basic systems for our operations, to track orders and, importantly, track food safety. Our labels show you the farm the meat came from, but we’re also able to trace back to the individual animal.”

In addition to offering meat boxes at over 20 established delivery sites, the Food to Market Challenge award allowed Top Box to open up new routes to Evanston Township High School and to Olive-Harvey College, with plans to expand to all seven Chicago City Colleges in 2018.

In 2017, Team Leverage distributed more than 1,000 protein boxes, or 11,000 pounds of meat, feeding over 46,000 meals to Chicago residents. In 2018 the team expects to add additional sites, increasing sales for This Old Farm’s network of farmers and creating more opportunities for Chicago consumers to access local and sustainable meat products.

Go behind the scenes with Team Leverage and learn more about how they’re leveraging delivery chains in this feature on the Food:Land:Opportunity website: Food to Market Challenge Winner Launches Food Box Programs

Team Leverage may have taken the Food to Market Challenge prize, but the innovation and the potential demonstrated by the four other finalists presented a rare opportunity.

“A few months after the competition ended, we followed up with all of the teams to see how they had progressed and if the Challenge had helped to elevate their work,” said Michael Davidson, senior program officer at The Chicago Community Trust. “And it turns out it had.”

“Their solutions were all moving forward but needed a boost to continue doing so. Although we couldn’t support the teams at the same funding level as the Challenge winner, we were able to provide the funds they needed to take their solutions to the next level,” Davidson said.

  • Irv Cernauskas of Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks is spearheading a network of on-farm aggregation hubs. Cernauskas said, “The Challenge was a great catalyst for the formation of the Farmer Alliance as a vehicle to move forward our individual team efforts to build the local food system. Articulating our vision led to a significant grant award from the USDA. That’s been huge for us.”
  • In mid-November, the Kane County Board announced the development of a countywide food hub. The private hub will operate under the name Dream Distributors (the project competed in the Challenge as Good Food Partners Community Food Hub) and offer production, distribution and marketing services to small farms. The concept was the result of a feasibility study and food system plan that identified a food hub as a resource to connect farmers to wholesale buyers that would otherwise not be able to do business with them.
  • The Farm on Ogden food hub and farmer training center in Lawndale is now fully funded and under construction. Angela Mason, associate vice president of Windy City Harvest at Chicago Botanic garden, said, “The Food to Market Challenge helped us refine our vision for the Farm on Ogden and the role of partners. The video and buzz created for the Challenge definitely helped galvanize interest and led, in part, to the project gaining momentum last fall. The facility at the heart of the project—the food hub and training center—takes our work in Lawndale a huge step forward.”
  • The Artisan Grain Collaborative (AGC) is building demand for new artisan grain varieties in Chicago markets through a systems approach that connects the key players throughout the grain value chain, including chefs, bakers, nonprofits, farmers, millers and researchers. “The planning we did during the competition and through the subsequent Food:Land:Opportunity grant has enabled AGC members to begin testing a variety of small-batch crops and develop educational materials to promote local grain use,” said Ben Shorofsky, programs specialist at Delta Institute. “The team has leveraged this work to receive a highly competitive USDA Local Food Promotion Program Grant in September 2017, which will provide critical support for the AGC over the next three years.”
Two women standing in front of a meat counter, one listening while the other talks and gestures with her hands
Owner Jessica Smith (left) of This Old Farm shares her plans for expansion with Lenore Beyer, director of conservation programs for Kinship Foundation. “What we’ve been able to do since the competition is advance our five-year business plan,” Smith said. “Once we had the seed capital, the bank felt confident loaning to us for our first expansion.”


“We see common themes in all of these projects,” said Lenore Beyer, director of conservation programs for Kinship Foundation. “All of the projects are breaking down fragmentation barriers and working collaboratively with new partners. The teams are using innovative methods to tap into existing food distribution systems, creating new networks developed by local food producers.”

“All of these projects validate the strategies advocated by Food:Land:Opportunity to create a resilient local food economy.”