Health & Wellness: The Buy Illinois Challenge

The Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) sponsors the “Buy Illinois Challenge.”  The roots of the IDOA go way back to 1819.  The IDOA was established just months after Illinois became a state in 1829, and the department gained its status as a regulatory and promotional agency in 1917.

The challenge encourages every Illinois household to dedicate $10 of their weekly food budget to buy Illinois products.  There are 4.7 million households in Illinois.  This would generate more than $47 million to the Illinois economy each week.  It would mean a huge boost to our Illinois economy.

Where to get Illinois products

Visit buyillinoischallenge.com for a list of buying opportunities.  Take a few minutes to search for a community or roadside farmers market near you.  The Agribusiness guide is a listing of companies, which either produce, process, package or are headquartered in Illinois.  August through October is when many fresh fruit and vegetable crops peak in Illinois.

Many consumers get into the habit of supermarket shopping.  In the grocery store, look for the Illinois Where Fresh Is logo.  It is part of a marketing campaign used to help identify and sell Illinois-grown produce at grocery stores and restaurants throughout Illinois.  For general information, call the IDOA at 217-782-2172.

Farmers markets

Did you know that Illinois ranks third in the nation for the number of farmers markets?  Shopping at the farmers market is one sure way to buy fresh locally grown and in-season produce.  Buying your food locally is good for our local economy, good for the environment, and it is good for family farmers—not to mention how good fresh, local food tastes!  Below are some tips for making the most of your local food choices.

What is “in-season”?

Do not go to the farmers market expecting to find pumpkins in June.  However, you will find them in October.  Do not expect uniform size in the produce selections either.  Sizing is a supermarket tactic, but it is not the way things grow.  Smaller fruits and vegetables are often more flavorful than the overgrown supermarket varieties, which are grown for their shipping qualities.

You can print a beautifully illustrated chart of “What’s In Season” free from the IDOA at agr.state.il.us/markets/farmers/.  Try something new.

Tour the entire market first

Stroll around and check out what is available.  Most prices are uniform, but the varieties and quality may not be as consistent.  Decide which vendor you will purchase from.  Meet the farmers.  Shake hands and offer praise for the beautifully grown selections on display.  Plan a road trip and visit farmers markets in other Illinois counties.

Most farmers and family members like to talk to their customers.  They are willing to talk about the variety of produce they have grown, how it was grown, how to store it, how to ripen it, even how to cook it.  And they are a wealth of information.

Available in August: green beans, red and green bell pepper, berries, carrots, cauliflower, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, fresh herb (basil, tarragon, rosemary, etc.), leek, melons, nectarines, okra, onions, peaches, peas, plums, potatoes, radishes, squash, tomatoes, turnips and much more.

Storing fresh produce

  • Watermelons and Cantaloupe:  wash and dry melons before refrigeration
  • Leafy greens:  store loosely in plastic bags and wash just before ready to use
  • Do not refrigerate tomatoes, unless they are cut—then wrap tightly
  • Fresh herbs:  make a fresh stem cut, store upright in a jar with about 1-inch water and cover loosely with a plastic bag.  Wash when ready to use.  Use within 1-2 weeks.  Except basil.  Do not refrigerate basil, it will quickly turn black.
  • Sweet Corn:  Do not shuck until ready to cook

Heirloom Tomatoes

During August, you will find a large variety of fresh tomatoes, including heirloom varieties in shades of green and yellow stripes, purple, maroon, brown, and yellow.  Heirloom tomatoes are showing up at many farmers markets.  What are heirloom tomatoes?  Heirloom tomatoes are generally a variety that has been passed down, through several generations of a family.  They are valued for their flavor, color, texture and juiciness.  They are not hard and tasteless, so handle with care.

Look for Cottage Food Vendors

Cottage Food Vendors produce delicious fresh pastries, jams, jelly, preserves and other foods in their home kitchens.  Certified in Food Sanitation, these vendors are allowed to sell their products at the farmers market or on their private farms.

Enjoy the growing season and enjoy Illinois fresh produce.  Happy shopping!

Prepared by Drusilla Banks, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness; University of Illinois Extension in Bourbonnais, IL.

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