Hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans live in more than a mile from a store where they can buy fresh produce. These “food deserts” have proven to harm the health of residents, who are disproportionately Black. Rep. Sonya Harper has made it here life’s missions to end the city’s food deserts and ensure that Black Chicagoans have easy access to the affordable, healthy food that will allow them to lead healthy lives.
Agriculture Committee ChairIn 2019, Harper became the first African American woman to serve as the chairperson of the Illinois House Agriculture & Conservation Committee. In that role, she has helped expand urban agriculture in order to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to food deserts and create community-based jobs. She also has helped address the needs of Illinois farmers and other agricultural businesses to help continue to grow one of the state’s top economic sectors.
Urban Farming AdvocateHarper has worked persistently for nearly a decade to improve access to healthy food in Englewood and West Englewood. In the Illinois General Assembly, she has authored and passed bills to foster urban agriculture in order to provide fresh, locally-grown food to the more than 80,000 people in Cook County who live more than a mile from a large-scale retail food establishment. In 2018, Harper led the passage of legislation establishing Urban Agricultural Zones, which incentivize cities to use vacant lots to sell locally-grown foods, providing an economic boost to low-income areas. That same year, she was chief-sponsor of the Farmer Equity Act, which requires Illinois to consider women farmers and farmers of color when making policies and to provide those same farmers with information about state and federal assistance.
Cannabis equityIn the lead-up to Illinois legalizing recreational cannabis in 2019, Harper worked to ensure the legislation guaranteed that the economic benefits of the new industry would flow to Black and brown Illinoisans who have been most targeted by the war on drugs. Harper chaired the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’s efforts to legalize recreational cannabis sales in Illinois, hosting a yearlong set of workshops to incorporate community input into the bill. Her work led to provisions in the law that expanded opportunities for expungement of cannabis arrest records, and which removed barriers to minority applicants by increasing access to capital, licensing and training. In 2020, Harper publicly raised concerns about inequities in how cannabis dispensary licenses applications were scored and awarded, spurring Gov. J.B. Pritzker to allow rejected applicants to revise their application and challenge their score. And in Feb 2020, Harper chief-sponsored a bill to create the Cannabis Equity Commission in order to help ensure Illinois’ cannabis industry is as equitable as it was intended to be.