Combatting Food Insecurity in Champaign, IL

The Mayors Innovation Project, partnered with Healthy Babies Bright Futures, provided grants to cities across the country to work towards better health outcomes for children. We are excited to share the story of one of our grant recipients, Champaign, IL.

By Rebecca McBride, Founder/CEO of 4 Osprey (CU City Farms)

To combat high rates of obesity, food insecurity, and childhood poverty through access to healthy and nutritious food, the Champaign Township and City of Champaign have partnered with Champaign-Urbana City Farms (CU City Farms) to create a Mobile Food Market. Since its launch in September 2020, the Market has distributed more than 5,000 pounds of organic, locally grown produce, organic baby food, diapers and formula—free of charge—to more than 1,000 individuals. 

The effort responds to significant economic and health challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Champaign County’s poverty rate is 18.9%, higher than both Chicago’s Cook County and the state poverty rate. Champaign has significant geographical areas identified as food deserts, and the county has a food insecurity rate well above the national average. The Market visits low-income communities in Champaign twice a week to deliver products, and takes input and feedback through a post-it note system, enabling them to respond to customer needs and ideas, and to establish deeper relationships within communities.

“Since the CU City Farms initiative took shape, I have been pleased with the positive response received from both the public and private sectors,” said Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen. “Through this program, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, the CU Mass Transit District, the Champaign and Urbana Park Districts, Carle, University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, Eastern Illinois Foodbank, and our local urban farms—just to name a few—have come on board in meaningful and reciprocal collaboration. This is a promising initiative for our community.”

Medical Care

In addition to providing food and diapers, the Market travels with another partner, Carle Health, to provide medical care and wrap around services. The Carle Mobile Health Clinic provides a variety of care, including prenatal/postnatal services, school physicals, and flu shots, and plans are underway to deploy the COVID vaccination when available to the general population. Carle’s Healthy Beginnings Program provides in-home support to expectant and current mothers and babies from low-income families; our partnership allows Carle’s program to deliver food and supplies from the Mobile Market directly to these homes, while communicating the availability of the twice per week market. 

Systemic Change

The project partners are committed to creating systemic change by promoting urban farming more broadly in the community. In support of this long-term goal, the Mobile Market has allowed CU City Farms to advance this mission in several ways. This includes creating management opportunities for food insecure residents and an emerging partnership between CU City Farms and the City of Champaign Township, which is currently working with Central Illinois Produce’s Freight Farm (a vertical hydroponic farm inside a freight container) to employ and educate individuals from underserved communities about hydroponic farming. All produce grown at the Freight Farm will be donated to the Mobile Market. Koss Farms, an aquaponic farm just outside of Champaign, is planning to train and hire individuals from underserved communities through CU City Farms and will donate produce and organically raised tilapia to the Mobile Market. 

Looking Ahead

The project plans to have the mobile market bus retrofitted so that individuals can climb on board to choose their products, once it is safe to do so. The retrofit includes a walk-in cooler, refrigeration units, and ample shelving.