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Central Illinois communities come together to feed families

cardboard box full of large and small tomatoes and banana peppers

COLES COUNTY, Ill. – When MaryBeth Massey developed a project to address food insecurity in her hometown, she wanted to start small. By partnering with a local Amish community produce auction, she aimed to provide 1,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to families in need in 2019. 

Her community rose to the challenge. 

"We ended up with more than 25,000 that first year. We kept showing up each week, and growers and buyers started giving us more produce."
- MaryBeth Massey University of Illinois Extension program coordinator, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education 

In that first year, what came to be known as the Partners in Produce project tipped the scales at 25,285 pounds to be exact.

Since then, with the enthusiastic support of the growers and buyers at the Arthur Produce Auction, University of Illinois Extension has provided more than 116,000 pounds of fresh produce to central Illinois food pantries.

Food insecurity in farm country

When she began addressing lack of food access, MaryBeth Massey, Illinois Extension program coordinator for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education she reached out to the Arthur Produce Auction which is operated by the local Amish community and managed by Sheldon Raber.

“We started on June 7, 2019, with 55 pounds of asparagus and 25 pounds of rhubarb," says Massey. "We kept showing up each week, and growers and buyers started giving us more produce."

Working with the Arthur Produce Auction, more than 64,000 pounds of fresh produce were donated to central Illinois food pantries as part of U of I Extension's Partners in Produce program.

Food pantry use surged during the pandemic

After a successful inaugural partnership, the COVID-19 pandemic had the potential to derail all the previous year’s progress. Massey and Susan Stollard, community worker with  Extension SNAP-Ed, continued in 2020 with the support of the auction, growers, and others, resulting in 27,300 pounds of produce donated to the area pantries and food distribution sites.

“The Amish Produce Auction and community have been very supportive of our work," Massey says.

They held a benefit auction in late 2019 with plans to use the funds to purchase boxes of produce at the auction in 2020 for a discounted price. As COVID-19 hit, pantries were overwhelmed with new families.

“We used those funds to purchase produce, and as we would start to run low on funds, more donations would appear to cover the cost of produce,” Massey says. “Most of these donations have been anonymous.”

Community support drove Partners in Produce growth

In 2020 and 2021, funds from the Illinois Innovation Network and the Lumpkin Family Foundation allowed the Partners in Produce program to extend its reach even further.

  • Dietitian student outreach: A $30,000 seed grant from IIN connected Illinois Extension and Eastern Illinois University’s nutrition and dietetics programs to increase the volume of donations, expand project reach, and establish a sustainable distribution process. Three graduate EIU dietetics students - Abby Mann, Colleen Leehy, and Samantha Metternich - attended each auction in the summer of 2021 to help load produce, deliver to pantries, and track the donations.
  • New refrigeration units: The Lumpkin Family Foundation provided just over $15,000 which was used to purchase multiple refrigeration units for area pantries. Refrigeration units are key to keep the produce fresh for a longer period so it can be used by families before spoiling.

With this continued support and momentum, year three of the program had its highest numbers yet, with 64,212 pounds donated to local food pantries and other sites, including community meal locations, Little Free Food Pantries in Douglas County, and mobile markets.

Now, 41 locations receive produce, and deliveries reach families in Douglas, Moultrie, Coles, Cumberland, Edgar, Macon, and Champaign counties. Other businesses, such as Regenerative Life Farms and Countryside Greenhouse, have donated additional items, including eggs, produce, and tomato and pepper plants directly for Extension to distribute.

“Working in this area really touches your soul,” said Stollard. “I would see families week after week, and they would tell me, ‘That’s the best tomato I’ve had in years. I can’t afford to buy them from the market and the ones at the store don’t taste as good.’”

What's next for Partners in Produce

The future for the Partners in Produce Program is positive. Partners in Produce will receive an additional $30,000 from the Lumpkin Family Foundation next year to support its work during the 2022 season.

“Every year, it just keeps getting better,” Massey says.

About Extension

Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.