Revision Street: Debbie Hillman (II)

Revision Street: Debbie Hillman (II)

Debbie Hillman is explaining how, in her mid-fifties, she decided to start working exclusively on food issues in Evanston, and how she was able to convince others to work alongside her. And she’s paging through an information packet she’s brought with her, documentation of her work on food issues. Her handouts.

We want to be engaged in—we don’t want somebody to be telling us to keep narrowing our vision. I think that’s what we do in our educational settings, we limit the things that children can see and experience. We take them outside where it’s almost impossible to limit experience. The metaphor is, look at what we do with horses in traffic. We put blinders on them. That’s what school walls sometimes are. But the minute you take people outside, any of us, the sensory things that are going on—wind, sound, taste, smell, the ability to move: school gardens are a incredible classroom.

And then I do have handouts, cause really the main thing is how we’re gonna change the food system. These urban farms and school gardens are very good places to talk about things, but we really have to change our federal policy. So we took a first step in Illinois. I went to my state representative, Julie Hamos, in 2006 and started talking to her. I was hoping to make her job easier as a legislator. She’s dealing with all these different issues, and I’m saying, No, If we look at the food that will slowly decrease or eliminate some of the other issues that you’re dealing with. After the third meeting, she told me to bring her a large coalition and show her that it’s not just two nice ladies from Evanston who think the State of Illinois should do something about this, so I brought her farmers and other organizers and people from the health sector and the environmental sector and she got it. In October of 2006, she said, OK, let’s write a bill. She wrote the first Illinois Food Farms and Jobs Act.

She’s a very savvy legislator. I mean, she was listening to us, but we didn’t have a plan. We knew we wanted to do something, but we didn’t know exactly what we needed to do. So she said, I’ll give you two years. We’ll create a task force, you’ll have farmers, you’ll have a philanthropist, you’ll have a chef, you’ll have community-based people … it was all slotted. A representative from the Department of Ag, Commerce and Economic Opportunity. You-all figure it out, write a plan, and say what Illinois should do about food. So we wrote a plan.

I was one of the coordinators of the task force. It came out in March last year and Hamos wrote the second bill, which enacted a permanent state body for Illinois called the Illinois Local Food Farms and Jobs Council. So I have the basic talking points on this, and it just very basically says that Illinois is a farm state. Eighty percent of our land is working farm land, but we import 95% of our food, the food that we eat. So what’s wrong with that picture? We have a large and diverse consumer population, so there are a million foods Illinois farmers can be growing, but they’re not.

So that’s what it’s all about. The new council had its first meeting in March and they’re gonna have to figure out how we get new farmers, how we preserve the farm land, how we create the distribution networks from the small farms to the cities, how we create the retail places in all the food deserts in Illinois, not only inner city. I’m a Chicago girl, so it was news to me to see that the rural towns visually they look like inner city ghettos. They’re boarded up. They have no stores left. They have a post office, a bar, and a church. That’s main street. All over Illinois. So people who live there have to go 30 miles to the Wal-Mart for groceries. Thirty miles is, like, [laughs] you know, I can’t even conceive that. It’s not acceptable, especially if you don’t have a car. So there’s food deserts. Most of us don’t like that phrase, but I think everybody kind of understands what it means: that there’s not food locally available and food desserts are all over Illinois.

I am not on the new council. I intentionally took myself off the slate because it’s just another volunteer job and at this point I need to get paid for something. Since December I have not been paid for anything except the occasional speaking engagement or something like that. I think it’s because food systems, or food policy, it’s all new, especially to urban people. So the institutions and the places that might have jobs around these kinds of things in a few years, they’re just learning about this.

And the social service agencies, the people who are providing the emergency services, the soup kitchens, the food banks, the after-school snacks—because the kids are coming to after-school programs hungry, because they had lunch at 10:30 ‘cause that’s when schools sometimes have lunches and then they don’t think about that a lot of kids aren’t going home right away, they’re going to after school programs—so some of these social service agencies didn’t plan to get into food issues, but that’s why food has become such a big thing. But they’re so busy providing those services they don’t have time to think about policy, so they’re not seeing the connections. They’re just trying to help people on a regular daily basis. That’s why it’s up to other people to step back and say, wait a minute. You shouldn’t have to be feeding X number of people 365 days a year for free. I mean, I have no problem with people getting food for free, but we’re seeing the problem increase.

It’s totally a learning process for all of us, for our entire lives, because we are living organisms. We’re constantly changing, so the food that fed me when I was younger may not be satisfying or feeding me now. Or, as I said, I was physically fit for most of my life and now I’m sitting behind a computer and so I need to balance that out. I don’t prescribe a diet for anybody. That’s really the beauty of what we did in Illinois. It’s an entrepreneurship model, meaning entrepreneurship for everyone. We want to maximize choice for the farmers, for business people and for consumers. If you want vegetarian options, I believe you should have them. If you want organic food, I believe you should have access to that. If you want to eat meat, if you want Kosher or Hallal, gluten-free, peanut-free, I believe you should be able to find those things. Maybe without having to go to seven stores to do your grocery shopping every week.