Monday afternoon's cold, hard rain kept the state's lieutenant governor inside. But it didn't keep her from showing support for the department's decision to grow vegetables in a garden behind its building, as well as making use of the produce in nutrition classes and as snacks for staff and clients.
Simon was in town to tour Carl Sandburg College, stop No. 33 in an effort to visit all 48 community colleges in the state, and paused to check out the unique effort at the Health Department.
"What lured me here was the garden," said Simon. "I am the chair of the governor's Rural Affairs Council and I'm originally from Carbondale, so I enjoy promoting local foods.
"When we talk about locally grown foods, we're talking about an issue with a lot of winners. You're talking about more jobs, promoting healthier foods and when you eat healthier, we have a chance to cut medical costs in the long run."
The pilot program conceived and executed at the Health Department is unique in the state. The department started its own garden this summer, and the vegetables grown in the 20-foot-by-30-foot plot have been used in the department's Women, Infants and Children program, general nutrition classes and eaten by clients and Health Department employees.
Ward 6 City Councilman Wayne Allen helped the Health Department get the garden started. Health Board member Jeanne Harland and Pam Webber, a lobbyist for University of Illinois Extension partners and a member of Citizens for Don Moffitt, made Simon aware of the Health Department's efforts to expose clients to fresh vegetables.
Department employees raised tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, spinach, squash, zucchini and string beans.
"I love the fact that children could pop a cherry tomato in their mouths while in the waiting room," Simon said. "It is a way of letting children know there are healthy snack alternatives and it is a way to get children interested in growing healthy foods."
Simon also toured the Health Department's community clinic and dental care facilities before answering questions.
Public Health Administrator Heidi Britton asked Simon for more help putting locally grown foods in schools throughout Knox County and raised the issue of coupons that allow WIC clients to shop at local farmers markets. Simon learned that Knox County is on a waiting list to become involved in that program.
"We have serious health issues in this state and those issues are often tied to diet - just look at the problem in the state and across the country with diabetes," Simon said. "I think one of the things we have to look at is more support for locally grown foods being made available to people in the WIC program, along the lines of how we made it possible to use LINK cards at farmers markets throughout the state."
During the wide-ranging question-and-answer session, Britton and Knox County Board of Health member Doug Gibb also raised the issue of funding for mental health services. Gibb stressed the state has not devoted enough resources to funding mental health care for children.
"We have a huge problem in our schools," Gibb said. "We have kids in school everyday with problems and we aren't able to help them."