BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Instead of just accepting claims from various groups and media outlets about food production as is, Amy Hansmann wanted to get to the bottom of it.

The mother of two youngsters from Chicago suburb River Forest took her inquisitiveness to the next level when she was among nine selected to participate in the Field through the Illinois Farm Families program.

Hansmann said at the recent Illinois Agricultural Legislative Roundtable that she applied for the Field Mom program because of the increasing cost of trying to feed her family a healthy diet while having questions about agriculture.

“There is so much in the press about chemicals on farms, how so much of our food and what is in our food is bad for us and even for animal treatment,” she said at the Illinois Farm Bureau-hosted roundtable.

“There is also a lot of what I call non-information. There are those headlines and sound bites that are reused over and over again and make you want to gasp and think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t eat that again.’ But I’m never really told why. I started really paying attention when what I was buying and feeding was for my young son.”

It was then that Hansmann started using organic food, “because I was afraid of the ‘what if,’ but along with what I was buying was the obvious cost,” she said.

Her food bills bill increased with the move to an organic menu.

“I was lucky enough that in my household I can alter or stretch the food budget as I need, but I’m also very aware that is not true in many households,” she said.

“For the past five years, I’ve been a very active donor and volunteer with our local food pantry. Over this time, demand has skyrocketed. In the last year, we cut our service area in half and the demand continues to rise.

“I’m lucky to live in a nice area and even a few of my neighbors need help, but I’m surrounded by some of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago. I guarantee that for those moms finding a source for milk or getting any milk for their kids is a bigger priority than determining whether $6.50 is worth it for organic.

“This really made me think a little bit harder why I was changing the way that I purchase food. It also made me feel a little bit guilty that what I was giving to other people I perceived as good enough, while I was looking for the best for my family.”

Becoming involved in the Field Mom program gave Hansmann a chance to get to the bottom of her questions and fears.

“Some of my biggest fears going into the program are chemicals used to grow my foods and what is actually being done to the food that I don’t know about,” she said. “In a perfect world, I picture farmers planting the seed, harvesting the results and handing me a perfect vegetable. How does it really get to my table? Is the food actually good for me?

“The same goes for my meat. How are antibiotic used? What’s the deal with hormones? Are these animals leading miserable horrible lives?”

Hansmann was not disappointed in her quest for knowledge through the Field Mom program. A key part of the program is touring farms to get a close look at production practices and meet with farmers.

The first tour stop over the course of several months last year was to a farm that utilized the latest technology to plan, plant and harvest corn and soybeans.

“I was anticipating that it was a fairly sophisticated process, but what I found out blew my mind,” Hansmann said.

Livestock also was raised on the farm.

“I learned about the use of antibiotics, and it was easy to understand that when they are used, the animals are kept out of the food chain. To me, it’s not really an issue anymore,” Hansmann said.

“I’m sure that someone somewhere is misusing the antibiotics in their animals, but with the same certainty I’m sure that there’s a mom or some person somewhere overmedicating themselves or their child by demanding an antibiotic for a common virus.”

Animal production was a major concern for Hansmann, but what she found during the tours “was a bunch of interesting animals that seemed happy enough to me.”

“The sow farms and the pig farms did turn me off a bit. It was great to have an expert, Dr. (Janeen) Johnson (University of Illinois animal scientist) with us to explain the issues and the research going on worldwide,” she said. “I never realized the roles of a hierarchy in animals would make an impact on the meat that I bought.

“It seemed important, in my mind anyway, the idea that treating animals humanely is not treating them as human. So many people think they’re house pets like they are a member of the family, and that really doesn’t make sense to treat livestock that way.”

One of Hansmann’s biggest “ah-ha” moments in her Field Mom journey was finding out about the “Where is my milk from” website.

“It sounds silly, but when faced with a gallon of milk that’s over $6, it is not a laughing matter,” she said.

Deciding that organic milk was not something she was going to invest in on an ongoing basis, she looked into the name brand, Dean’s Milk.

“This milk was only $4.99. The Jewel story brand milk was $3.99 and the Shopper’s Value milk was $2.99,” she said. “I assumed that the Dean’s Milk sold at a premium must be a better choice for my family. I was shocked to discover that all of the milk I just mentioned comes from Dean’s Dairy in Huntley, Ill.”

A frequent question Hansmann hears from others is what she thinks of farmers.

“I don’t have any worries, and I never did. What I do worry about is what those really nice people are doing to my food,” she said.

“I think food production, in general, has been slammed by the media. ‘Corn is evil. They’re feeding you sick animals. You should only eat what’s been grown within 100 miles of your home. And the world is being destroyed by farmers.’ If you listen to everything on the evening news, I don’t think there would be anything left to eat.

“Last month, Parade magazine in the Sunday newspapers had a cover story on Howard Buffett who farms at Decatur. He talked a little bit about farming and a lot about philanthropy and organizations in the U.S. that are trying to eradicate hunger.

“Unfortunately, the article title and the headline on the cover was, ‘The Good Farmer.’ This is the kind of thing that makes people worry because it makes them think that maybe the other farmers are not so good. It upsets me that people have a hard time separating the headlines from what’s really going on, and they don’t really have the resources to do it.”

Hansmann said she loved every minute of learning about her food on Illinois farms through the Field Mom program.

“What I found is that the issues I worry about and those that are in the news are so complex that no one has all of the answers for me,” she said.

Many of her initial questions were answered, and she continues her quest for further information.

“I still have lots of concerns about the fruits and vegetables that I eat, hoping to learn more about them in the future,” she said. “I would love to hear more from farmers and their responses to the things I hear on the news.

“We have a lot of schools up north, and while we don’t focus on agriculture as much, there are a lot of moms and people who would be willing to hear what you have to say.”

Through the program, Hansmann also learned a lot about herself, the way she shops and how she interprets things she hears.

“I found that I didn’t really question things about my food the same way that I question the government about taxes or legislators about laws,” she said. “I’m a big believer in asking a lot of questions, but I found that with my food, I was just coasting because I didn’t know anything.

“To those who espouse the evils of corn and rant about how it’s in everything you eat, I would suggest that you don’t eat much processed food or read the label.

“I also suggest learning what labels mean. I had no idea that anyone could put the term ‘natural’ on just about anything. I did not know there is a long list of chemicals and additives approved for use in organic foods.”

After she began visiting farms, Hansmann also sought out further information.

“I had no idea how many stops food makes on its journey to my table. I certainly feel much more comfortable of what’s happening on Illinois farms, but I’m concerned about where it is going between your house and mine,” she said.

“As a consumer, I think about the farmer, but I don’t have any idea about the next level of production or processing.

“I am very grateful for the opportunity to be a Field Mom and be able to visit your farms and to learn about everything that is done for my family.

“I appreciate how everyone has been so candid and hope that the farmers and ag-related industry understand that ignorance is a really scary thing, and it’s great to finally have some answers to my questions.”