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New Extension educator drives economic momentum to expand food access in Southern Illinois

​ On behalf of all of us at Illinois Extension, welcome to the team! Pictured: John Shadowens, Extension Educator, Community and Economic Development

URBANA, Ill. – Industry shifts in southern Illinois have left 11 counties with declining economies and an exodus of residents. Alexander, Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Johnson, Massac, Pope, Pulaski, Saline, Union, and White counties experienced a 7.73% population decrease from 2010 to 2020, U.S. Census data shows. A 16.7% poverty population in those counties, compared to Illinois’ 12.5%, highlights a growing concern around food insecurity in the area.

A new community and economic development position with University of Illinois Extension was created to focus on building local and regional partnerships that help to expand food access throughout those counties. Funding for the role was provided in part by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education’s (SNAP-Ed) Healthy Equity Achieved Together (HEAT) project.

John Shadowens joined the Illinois Extension family in November 2021 to fill this role, which leverages Shadowens’ extensive background in community advocacy, coalition work, grassroots education, and stakeholder engagement to address local food access needs by pursuing economic revitalization.

“John brings community development experience to our team, and he realizes that we have to engage both decision-makers and residents in order to maximize our impact,” says Jody Johnson, Illinois Extension county director. “He is building relationships with local influencers to find solutions to the problems.”

Shadowens works with state legislators and local officials to support entrepreneurial activities that restore economic opportunities and improve residents’ access to grocery stores and food pantries. As the lead for the Southern Illinois Food Access project, serving Illinois Extension units in Alexander, Johnson, Massac, Pulaski, and Union counties and Gallatin, Hamilton, Hardin, Pope, Saline, and White counties, his initial focus is on establishing sustainable food access points in key areas.

Trinity Allison, Illinois Extension SNAP-Ed specialist and Shadowens’ liaison for the Southern Illinois Food Access project, says they are currently finalizing a Food and Grocery Access survey that will be distributed to SNAP-eligible families in the area; results will provide greater insight on local food access challenges to inform next steps in program development efforts.

A career of people-focused leadership follows Shadowens to Illinois Extension. He served most recently as president and CEO of Spero Family Services, a United Methodist-affiliated behavioral health organization focused on youth and family support, community wellness, crisis intervention, and outpatient clinical services. Previous leadership roles included long-range strategic planning and managing youth advocacy programs, agency relationships, and donor engagement activities.

Shadowens holds a Master of Public Administration degree from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a B.A. in Psychology from Southeast Missouri State University.

“When industries leave town, it’s easy for communities to lose their identity,” says Shadowens. “It’s a labor of love to help these communities reinvent themselves and establish identities that truly come from within.”

Shadowens says he hopes to help others thrive by building skills and awareness to develop their lives and strengthen communities through education, partnerships, and planning.

Shadowens is based out of the Johnson County Extension office in Vienna, Ill. Organizations and community members may connect with Shadowens by email at

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: John Shadowens, Visiting Community and Economic Development Educator, Illinois Extension

WRITER: Liz Smith, Media Communications Coordinator, Illinois Extension