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Funding increases fresh produce availability to local residents in need

Boxes of fresh tomatoes
Photo credit: MaryBeth Massey. Boxes of ripe red and orange tomatoes donated at the Arthur, IL Produce Auction.

URBANA, Ill. – Households seeking nutritional assistance in Coles County, Illinois, will benefit from expansion of a University of Illinois Extension SNAP-Ed initiative that increases availability of local fresh fruits and vegetables. A recently awarded $30,000 seed grant from the Illinois Innovation Network will enable collaborators from Illinois Extension and Eastern Illinois University to meet the nutritional needs of more people in the Coles County area.

“Funding from the new grant builds on assets already available through Partners in Produce and mobilizes the community in a multipronged approach to eliminate food insecurity in the area,” says Jennifer McCaffrey, Illinois Extension assistant dean, family and consumer sciences.

Partners in Produce was developed in 2019 when Illinois Extension SNAP-Ed Program Coordinator MaryBeth Massey and SNAP-Ed Community Worker Susan Stollard partnered with Sheldon Raber, Arthur Produce Auction manager, to create an outlet for excess local produce.

“As food insecurity became more of a focus in the area, I wondered if growers would donate their surplus,” said Massey.

Thanks to Massey’s dedication, the project surpassed expectations. Through support of producers and buyers, the project delivered 25,585 pounds of fresh produce to over 25 local food assistance sites throughout Coles, Cumberland, Douglas, Moultrie, and Shelby counties in 2019.

Eastern Illinois University colleagues, Krystal Lynch, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics, and Melissa Maulding, dietetic internship coordinator and instructor, saw an opportunity for EIU students to get involved and approached McCaffrey to partner in a grant to expand the project’s reach.

Beginning in August 2020, the one-year grant seeks to increase the volume of locally grown produce donations, expand project reach though business and community collaboration, and establish a sustainable distribution process that includes students, volunteers, and potentially a paid delivery position.

Dietetics students at EIU dove into the project in late August and are charged with building out a plan to engage businesses and community.

“For the students, it's not only a community opportunity but a chance to contribute to a valuable solution,” says McCaffrey.

The Illinois Innovation Network’s Sustaining Illinois program supports collaborative research and outreach projects across its 15 members that focus on economic, health, and social well-being for Illinois communities. Efforts from the collaborative EIU and Illinois Extension grant will focus primarily on Coles County, where McCaffrey says 14% of residents face food insecurity. IIN, which is led by the University of Illinois System, is a group of 15 university-based hubs across the state working to boost Illinois’ economy through entrepreneurship, research, and workforce development.

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.

SOURCE: Jennifer McCaffrey, Assistant Dean, Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Illinois Extension
SOURCE: MaryBeth Massey, SNAP-Ed Program Coordinator, University of Illinois Extension
WRITER: Liz Smith, Marketing Communications Coordinator, University of Illinois Extension