Urban Women Venture Out to Farms to Learn About Food

WHEATON — Mysti Desantis, mother of two pre-schoolers in Crystal Lake about 45 miles from Chicago, wants to know more about the food she feeds her family.

As part of that goal, she participates in the Field Moms program, which gives Chicago-area moms the opportunity to tour working Illinois farms and ask questions about animal care, pesticides, biotechnology and other issues that concern them.

They also will see planting and harvest action first-hand this year.

“Since I’ve had kids, I’ve been more interested in where food comes from. Before that, I was just interested in how many calories it had,” says Desantis of McHenry County in Northwest Illinois.

An avid label reader, Desantis recently got a better understanding of what those labels meant at the first Field Mom field trip to a mega grocery story in Wheaton. A dietitian and farmers gave the moms label-reading tips.

“My customers are concerned about labels,” says Michele Aavang, a beef, corn and soybean farmer near Woodstock in Northwest Illinois.

Several of the Field Moms were surprised to learn Angus was a breed of cattle not a designation of quality.

They gathered around Aavang with interest in the grocery store’s meat section as she explained the beef-grading system and pointed it out on the packaging.

“People want to know their farmers,” Aavang explains what motivated her to take part in the program. Her 60-head beef operation isn’t conducive to tours, so she joins the moms as they visit other farms.

Illinois Farm Families is composed of members of Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Pork Producers Association, Illinois Corn Marketing Board, Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Beef Association, Midwest Dairy Association and their checkoff programs. The group started Field Moms three years ago.

The program grew out of an Illinois Farm Bureau consumer study in 2009 which showed the kinds of things consumers, especially mothers, would like to know about their food sources, explains Lori Laughlin, director of issue management,.

This year, the 21 Field Moms include a lawyer, teachers, business owners, stay-at-home moms, a journalist, freelance writer, personal trainer and a self-professed social-media guru.

They snap photos, take notes and record videos on their tours to include in their blogs and Facebook messages.

Through their social media connections, they share their observations with other mothers and consumers.

Linda Coyne of Palo Heights, who has adult children, jokes she wished there was a Field Mom program when her kids were little before she “ruined them.” But, actually they are healthy eaters, she adds.

As a high school teacher who uses agriculture to teach science, Coyne intends to use her new knowledge to help teens think about what they eat and how the food got to their plates.

Cortney Fries of Chicago, the mother of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, sought, almost exclusively, organic foods when she entered the mega grocery store in Wheaton as part of the first field trip.

She says her children eat so much fruit, she is especially mindful of the amount of pesticides used on the “dirty dozen” foods.

Fries was surprised when registered dietitian Jodi Shield said, “There is not a medical reason to buy organic.”

There is an emotional aspect to buying organic, but “there is no scientific reason that tells you an organic product is healthier,” she explained.

Because of the stringent FDA rules and package-labeling requirements, the United States has the safest food in the world, Shield said.

“We have a very safe food supply,” she assured the Field Moms.

Prior to the standardization of the term “organic,” it was unregulated. Today, there are specific meanings of words. The Organic Seal by the USDA means something.

“You can be quite confident you are getting organic now, 10 years ago you couldn’t be,” she explained.

“I don’t buy organic,” said Dina Barron, the mother of six children, ages 5 to 18. For the Oak Park mom, cost is a key factor in shopping.

Another mom agreed and noted coupons dictate her purchases.

The organic food aisle was one of the most popular spots for questions, when the Ultra Foods store manager took the group on a tour.

Regarding pesticides, Aavang explained farmers don’t use any more than necessary because of economics and long-term interest in the environment.

“My husband has a license to apply pesticides. They are super-expensive.”

Aavang also said today’s technologies allow farmers to use the products specifically where needed via “spot applications.”

Even most organic farmers use some chemicals that are allowed, she added.

Donna Jeschke will host the Field Moms at her family’s corn and soybean farm near Mazon this spring.

“There is a lot of bashing of today’s agriculture,” Jeschke notes, thus she welcomes the opportunity for people to visit and see how a modern farm operates.

“We have a story to tell. As farmers, it’s important for us to connect with these moms who maybe don’t have a personal connection to the farm and answer any questions they have about how we raise the plants and animals they feed their families,” she explained.

Amanda Himan, a Mount Prospect mom of four daughters ages 2 to 8, is a fitness enthusiast and personal trainer. She will pass on what she learns.

Her interest in nutrition fits nicely with her family’s active lifestyle. “I am mostly looking forward to the dairy tour,” she says.

She buys raw milk for her family and wants to know if that is the best choice. She also wants to learn more about milk production in Illinois.