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Urban Acres helpng Peoria residents grow food locally
By TIM ALEXANDER
Illinois Correspondent

PEORIA, Ill. — As a recipient of part of $2 million in first-round funding from the Illinois Local Food Infrastructure Grant (LFIG) program, Andres Diaz has big plans to expand his family’s Urban Acres community gardens project in one of Peoria’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Conceptualized in 2018, Urban Acres strives to help residents of Peoria’s North Valley neighborhood grow food for themselves, including non-native and hard to find produce suited to the neighborhood’s ethnicity. 
The community gardens now produce enough bounty to sell to others. With $105,000 in LFIG funds, Urban Acres and neighborhood partner St. Paul Episcopal Church will be able to expand their operations -- including the opening of a new, commissary-style food court -- to enable more food entrepreneurs to create more food products while increasing economic development in the area. 
“For us this is truly hyper-local,” said Diaz, who started Urban Acres with his father and next-door neighbor, Rigo, and wife, Kathryn, after realizing an increasing need for fresh produce in their neighborhood. “It matters because these are our neighbors and this is where we live.”
Served by a small niche grocer on a largely residential stretch of road, Diaz calls his North Valley home a great place to live; however: “you can’t lend everybody a cup of sugar, and everyone doesn’t have a cup to share. We were talking to neighbors who couldn’t get tomatoes. We saw the need, and the county had different lots for sale. I bought some of those lots, and at this point we have 17 or 18 lots over nearly three acres where we have these gardens.”
In addition to helping to alleviate a food shortage in his neighborhood, Diaz’ gardens also help to beautify the formerly vacant lots, many of which were home to broken glass, chunks of brick and mortar, and weeds. 
“It wasn’t the best land to start with, but it was what we had to work with. (A local company) helped us to disc and turn the soil, then we were able to bring in a ton of compost thanks to another local company. We made it into good soil and started to grow tomatoes, cilantro, corn and peppers, primarily for Latino families in the neighborhood,” Diaz said, adding that Urban Acres has since added specialty crops like kousa (a type of summer squash favored by the North Valley’s Lebanese community) to their gardens. 
The success and popularity of his family’s community gardens program allowed Diaz to expand the operation over the years to include a public Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. In 2024, Urban Acres’ new commissary will open at 614 Spring Street in Peoria’s North Valley, signaling a fresh chapter in the Diaz family’s philanthropic food endeavors.
“With this new commissary we will help food entrepreneurs from cooking in their houses and selling (food) to their friends to actually being able to sell from a licensed kitchen, post their products on Facebook and more. It’s a maker’s space that is licensed with the health department, and I (envision) people growing their brand and products to where they might eventually have their own brick and mortar businesses,” said Diaz. 
Funding from the Illinois LFIG program will help Diaz get the commissary “off the ground” and running sooner than he’d thought possible without the additional cash flow. He now envisions a soft opening for his commissary, or “ghost kitchen” coming as soon as this summer.
“With this funding we will be able to complete the kitchen, and do some updates and upgrades to the building so that we have a long-term (location). It will go towards building up the infrastructure and investing into the community where we live. For us, this is an investment by the state of Illinois into the North Valley area,” he said. 
Diaz’s Urban Acres was just one of 247 LFIG applicants who submitted $23.5 million in funding requests -- more than 10 times the amount of money available -- through the program, which is in its first year. Diaz’s project proposal was one of just 19 selected for funding by the Illinois Department of Agriculture. 
Because of the overwhelming response to the program, advocates are now pushing the Illinois General Assembly to approve at least $2 million each year to support LFIG funding. LFIG funding was not included in Governor JB Pritzker’s proposed state budget presented to lawmakers in February. 

4/2/2024