Raghela Scavuzzo has a passion for local foods which runs in the family. Her family owned a grocery store and family members also founded the Kansas City Market in Missouri, which was the first farmers market in that city.
She earned her BA in Biochemistry and Classical Studies from Westminster College, then worked in Rwanda as a research assistant on a child nutrition program to decrease malnutrition through community nutrition. That led her to New Orleans for her master’s in Public Health, where as part of her nutrition focus, she worked on food access. She operated a local food hub and food access center in Birmingham, Alabama.
Today she is the executive director of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association and associate director of Food Systems Development at Illinois Farm Bureau interacting daily with farmers, nonprofits, government and associations.
IFT: How did your family background influence your career choice?
SCAVUZZO: Coming from a stereotypical Sicilian-American family, it was also about community. When my father passed away, we had family and community support. Ultimately your community is part of your family. My great uncles eventually had to sell the grocery store in Harrisonville, Missouri when we wouldn’t be able to compete with large supercenter stores. We sold it to someone else who was family owned but had multiple stores. This was a driving factor in my career before I even knew it. I wanted to help family operations and ensure food is accessible in communities.
IFT: Tell us about what your job involves.
SCAVUZZO: No day is the same. Ultimately I am to provide technical assistance, new market opportunities, and advocacy for food systems, specialty crops, and food access programs. This includes: working on issues including specialty crops, niche markets, local protein sales, organic production, value-added production, food access, and many other things. It also includes creating conferences, workshops, and resources. Or managing coalitions, participating in local, state and national committees, and providing technical assistance to name a few. It is a unique combination of advocacy and development. We provide also services for succession planning, are advocates for the cottage food law, promote agritourism tax credits for liability, and help with farmers market permitting.
IFT: Why is the work you do a good fit for Illinois Farm Bureau?
SCAVUZZO: To quote Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, “Ag Connects Us All.” Illinois Farm Bureau is about farm, family and food. Agriculture has to be at table when talking about nutrition. Without farming there isn’t food. Illinois farm bureau represents all farmers of size, production, a region. We help see where all the pieces fit together to create a cohesive food system. If farmers are not at the table a link in the issue is missing.
IFT: Tell us a little about your involvement with veterans.
SCAVUZZO: We helped bring the creation of the chapter of Farmer Veteran Coalition of Illinois. I now am into my third term as secretary of the board of directors. Illinois Department of Agriculture runs the Homegrown by Heroes Illinois Products logo. It is a key piece of local food marketing. Many of the farmers in the coalition are just starting out or are smaller farmers. Their needs align with much of the work we do in food systems.
IFT: What is one of the most important issues you are working on in food systems today?
SCAVUZZO: One of most exciting is Farm to Food Bank Program Feeding Illinois, University of Illinois, and Illinois Farmers Market Association. Food banks purchase seconds or ugly produce through a grant. Farmers recover costs of product that would be lost and it moves into food bank system. We moved 2.5 million pounds of food valued at $1.1 million into the food bank across the state of Illinois in two years. This is for products that didn’t have a home. Previously farmers and food banks had problems making connections. Currently Illinois Department of Agriculture is working with Local Food Purchasing Agreement funding to look at purchasing market value products for emergency feed programs from Illinois farmers. Through both of these programs we are building new markets that allow farmers to expand while assisting our most vulnerable populations.
IFT: How has the Illinois Specialty Growers Association changed over time? How does the future look?
SCAVUZZO: It is an exciting time for specialty growers and local food. There are opportunities for all growers including urban agriculture. This is the place the next generation can come from. Specialty crops provide diverse revenue streams for all types of farms including conventional ones. Things continue to change year to year. This year, mushrooms, cut flowers and renting alpaca and lamas to be flowers girls at weddings are emerging markets. It’s all about being creative.
IFT: What is the achievement you are most proud of?
SCAVUZZO: I am excited about the most recent achievement of getting an agritourism liability credit. Agritourism farms can get $1,000 tax credit for the next two years to help alleviate the burden of insurance costs. This will help agritourism continue to grow.
IFT: What is the best career or life advice you’ve received?
SCAVUZZO: It’s about following your passion. Understand why you get up in the morning. If you don’t believe what you are working on its hard to make a difference. Remember what motivates you to work long hours. I know if I can make a small difference in someone’s life, it is all worth it.
IFT: What advice would you give someone interested in this field?
SCAVUZZO: Do not be afraid to go somewhere or do something different. When I started in food systems development, my mom asked if I made up that term. She hadn’t heard of it. Now we have people getting degrees in Food Systems and Urban Agriculture. It makes total sense. I have been working in food systems going on a decade now having worked in community development in Rwanda and in Birmingham, Alabama. And now here it is easy to see how it is all interconnected
IFT: Name one thing that makes your efforts successful.
SCAVUZZO: Collaboration on local food efforts is key to building infrastructure. My role brings different organizations together and connects the dots. Buy Fresh Buy Local, the Regional Food Council, Local Food Purchasing Advisory Committee, Illinois Local Food Working Group, and the Farm to School Network are all part of the picture.