Ellen Hao

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to “Bring in the Light,” positioning herself as a progressive candidate who would uplift all Chicagoans. Prior to the runoff, the Chicago Food Policy Action Council (CFPAC) asked both candidates where they stood on food justice issues that impact Chicago’s communities. In response to the eight detailed questions in the CFPAC questionnaire, Lightfoot simply responded “yes.”

The Weekly asked our future mayor to go beyond “yes” and to explain how she planned to fulfill her commitments to the eight food policy issues identified in the questionnaire. A representative from Lightfoot’s transition team declined to comment, but did state that Lightfoot’s “policy teams are working diligently digging into the City’s most pressing issues, [including] food accessibility.”

Instead, we turned to the experts, the organizations in our city that have spent years working toward food justice. The Weekly decided to ask, What should the future of food policy in Chicago look like? What could Chicago do better?

The answer: A lot.

For example, the city could make the labyrinthine process of giving licenses to small business vendors more transparent. The CFPAC questionnaire asked the candidates whether they support “mak[ing] the process of becoming a food entrepreneur easier to navigate for all of Chicago’s residents—not just those with extra resources and increased access.” (Lightfoot responded “yes.”)

The opacity around acquiring licenses particularly burdens those with lower incomes or language barriers. “Folks who have language barriers get treated differently,” Rodger Cooley, the executive director of CFPAC, told the Weekly. “Folks who don’t have access to lawyers and consultants have a much harder time navigating the process.”

Street vendors in particular have experienced difficulty acquiring licenses. In October 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed an ordinance legalizing street vendors by requiring them to acquire a “Mobile Prepared Food License.” At the press time, there were only thirty-two vendors licensed for “Sales of Packaged Food From a Non-Motorized Cart (Mobile Prepared Food Vendor).” Even after three years, none of the approximately 150 members in the Asociación Vendedores Ambulantes (AVA), also known as the Association of Street Vendors, have a license.

Martin Unzueta, a spokesperson for AVA and the executive director of Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights, described AVA members’ unsuccessful attempts to work with the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) and the Department of Public Health (CDPH) to get their applications approved.

A BACP representative confirmed that they have one online resource to guide mobile vendors selling prepared foods through the application process. However, many of AVA’s members speak primarily Spanish and require either city staff or AVA members to translate. Unzueta detailed how, since 2015, AVA and its members have been making appointments with both BACP and CDPH to try to get approval. Each visit, they are told they have failed to meet at least one requirement. During AVA’s most recent visit to CDPH on April 24, Unzueta said, CDPH denied a AVA member for failure to meet a temperature regulation requirement that BACP had previously told them was not an issue.

According to Cooley, this prohibitive licensing process is due to siloing between different departments. “Each agency has a different perspective on what they’re trying to do, and there’s not a real shared vision on how collectively can we get as many operating, thriving small businesses going in the city while protecting public safety,” said Cooley.

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The CFPAC questionnaire also asked the candidates whether they support “build[ing] equitable pathways for emerging entrepreneurs and worker cooperatives of color in food service, urban agriculture, restaurants, and other food related businesses.” (Again, Lightfoot answered “yes.”)

Yet, the issue of inaccessible licenses is only one barrier that emerging food entrepreneurs face in Chicago. Another is a lack of available capital and investment.

Organizations like the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos (CTU), also known as the United Workers’ Center, are asking the city to support the incubation of worker cooperatives. Worker cooperatives are businesses owned by the workers, who reap financial benefits based on their labor contribution. In October 2018, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed a proposed resolution supporting the development of worker cooperatives in Cook County. “The problem with resolutions is that they don’t have much weight. It’s just a start. There’s still no money,” said Ana Guajardo Carrillo, the executive director of CTU and a member of the Cook County Commission on Social Innovation, which proposed the resolution.

Instead, Guajardo wants to see Chicago follow in the footsteps of New York City in devoting resources to worker cooperatives. In 2014, New York City Council allocated $1.2 million to launch the Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative (WCBDI), an initiative seeking to foster an environment for worker-owned businesses to grow and thrive in the city. WCBDI helped create twenty-one worker cooperatives in their first year and have to date launched over 100 cooperatives. Currently CTU has the technical resources and knowledge to incubate worker cooperatives, such as Cooperativa Visionarias, a worker-owned catering cooperative based on Chicago’s Southeast side. Nevertheless, CTU lacks money to scale their operations to support multiple cooperatives and make a larger impact.

Guajardo sees supporting worker cooperatives as a tool of economic development. Instead of encouraging chain superstores, she believes Chicago should support community members in starting their own businesses. “These stores might hire a few hundred jobs locally, but what happens to the actual development of the people? Do you want to keep employing low-income folks under you? Instead of helping other people become rich, why don’t you focus on helping community members own their own businesses?”

Camille Kerr, a founder of Upside Down Consulting, which supports workplace democracy, believes legislative victories for worker cooperatives will pave the way for more investment. One such bill, the Limited Worker Cooperative Association Act (House Bill 3663), creates a specific, legally recognized structure for worker cooperatives throughout Illinois. Currently, many cooperatives are traditional LLCs, allowing workers to be classified as owners rather than employees. However, using an LLC structure can make it difficult for a cooperative to retain its earnings. House Bill 3663 passed unanimously through the House, and the coalition hopes the bill will be in effect by January 2020.

The bill’s ramifications for Chicago cooperatives go beyond state acknowledgement. Along with the coalition, Kerr is working with individuals on the South Side to build a cooperative that provides living wage jobs and dignified work for formerly incarcerated women. “This bill will allow for us to go to the mayor, and say [cooperatives are] a form that will benefit the residents of Chicago. You need to support this form, like other cities have done…to benefit the low-wage workers in their communities,” Kerr said. Legal recognition give cooperatives more legitimacy to demand funding and resources.

Investing in cooperatives and communities that are trying to produce and sell healthier food in their communities should go beyond cash. The CFPAC questionnaire asked the candidates whether they will “support farmers of color to gain secure access to affordable land for food production.” (Lightfoot’s response: “yes.”) For Danielle Perry, the executive director of Growing Home and a member of Lightfoot’s environmental transition committee, Chicago must focus on land remediation. “Everyone deserves to live on clean land and clean soil. If possible, the city should help to create that option for people,” Perry said.

That’s what Chicago did for Growing Home. Growing Home uses farm-based training to support people with employment barriers, including paid on-the-job experience, job readiness training, and assistance handling issues like criminal records and housing. Perry described how when Growing Home was expanding their farm, the city remediated a block nearby: they secured the fence, guaranteed water sources and clean soil, and made it usable for their job training. All the food from that farm will be distributed throughout Englewood. “What do vacant lots do? They create more and more spaces for trouble,” Perry said. “You could be using it to create food for communities that really need it.”

Perry’s desire to make land available for urban agriculture or food entrepreneurship is part of her larger vision for the future of food policy in Chicago. “Whatever we can do to eliminate as many barriers or promote the selling and production of fresh produce will help,” she said. Part of that is supporting nonprofits like Growing Home that are already doing that work. According to Perry, eighty percent of those who participate in Growing Home’s paid job training program are formerly incarcerated. Eighty-six percent of Growing Home graduates found jobs along Chicago’s food chain, gaining positions with urban growing facilities, wholesalers, retailers, and restaurants.

Urban Growers Collective (UGC) also offers job training programs for formerly incarcerated adults, in addition to programs around teen job readiness and farmer incubation. UGC executive director and CFPAC board member Erika Allen discussed how these programs lower recidivism. “Those who are in the program are doing much better than those who aren’t in the program. If we’re able to help in that process of healing from that trauma, if we’re able to grow food and improve the environment that everybody is living in, that has some impact,” she said.

The question of the future of food policy ties back to health, workforce development, criminal justice, and more. “Our life work is that food is part of all of our lives. It’s really a determinant around health, and says a lot about what people are able to do in a community. As climate change continues to accelerate, our food system is more at risk. We want to have as much ability and space for people to grow,” said Allen.

As Mayor-elect Lightfoot decides what she thinks the future of food policy in Chicago should look like, it’s important to remember that connectivity. She should look to these organizations who have been envisioning and working towards that future for guidance. As Perry said, “It’s important to not reinvent the wheel, and to continue to support the nonprofits that are doing the work.”

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Correction, Thursday, May 9, 2019: A previous version of this article said that the produce grown on Growing Home’s newest farm parcel was already being distributed to Englewood residents. Growing Home is planning, but has not yet begun, to do so. 

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Michelle Gan is a contributor to the Weekly. She last wrote about veganism on the South Side, and has also published a photo essay about Jackson Park’s Wooded Island.

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