Cass County Local Foods Project Sees Changes in its Second Year

AMES, Iowa – Cass County community leaders and extension researchers at Iowa State University and Cornell University teamed up to create a research project that focuses on increasing the consumption of locally grown foods in the county. The project has been under way for more than a year now, and researchers plan on increasing hands-on activities for families with school-age children.

Two key collaborators of the project are founding members of the Cass County Cultivators, LaVon Eblen, co-owner and manager of Harrisdale Homestead, and Emily Krengel, director of food service for Cass County Memorial Hospital. The women are in charge of the extension research project from the local angle and assessed the progress of it over the last year and adjusted outreach efforts through their findings. The project has developed through the research and efforts of the two community leaders and other community members.

“Cass County has leaders committed to continuing to improve life for residents in their community,” said Kimberly Greder, a human development and family studies associate professor and extension specialist with Iowa State University who is the campus-based faculty member associated with the project.

child in gardenIn January and February this year, the research team conducted focus groups with parents of school-age children to learn about their perceptions of, experiences with and desire for locally grown foods, Greder explained.

"Families in the focus group interviews perceived locally grown foods to taste better and be healthier.  They stated they want to know where their food comes from and want to eat food that is grown with fewer chemicals, ” Greder said. “They want to eat local foods more often, but they hold back because they perceive local foods to be more expensive and they’re not always sure how to prepare some of the vegetables that local growers offer (e.g., egg plant).”

Families also stated that they would be interested in growing food with their children, if their children wanted to. It would be a way for them to spend time with their children. Families want to learn how to include local foods in easy, kid-friendly recipes. They want information on how to easily prepare and preserve local foods (especially foods they grow) with their children and other families, Greder added.

Last summer, the group planted garden boxes and visited local growers. They conducted informal interviews with families and developed some interactive programs for parents and children (e.g., making salsa). The team collaborated with Cass County Wellness to help families learn how to grow vegetables in a garden box. Twelve families built the boxes, planted vegetables in the boxes and tended them. For many children, this was the first time they had grown food.

“Our proposal is very unique in that parents and kids do the activities together,” Eblen said.

Recruitment for activities is targeted to families or groups who have expressed interest, however the programs are for all families in Cass County with school-age children. Eblen and Krengel are continually striving to recruit new participants. Activities are publicized through the radio, newspapers, churches and in the classroom.

“We’ve learned that we need to start with people who are already committed to a group or a relationship,” Eblen said. “That’s where we’re trying to move now.”

During the month of May, informal meetings were held around the county to hear more from families about how they feel about local foods and what they would like to learn. Hands-on workshops will take place in June. These will help parents and their children learn how to grow vegetables in garden boxes and small containers. Parent-child cooking sessions will happen throughout the summer.

The next program will be on composting and will include worm composting, which will be fun and interesting for the children. Meetings are scheduled for June 12 and 15.

For more information on summer programs, contact LaVon Eblen at 712-254-2254 or Emily Krengel at 712-243-7550, ext. 3421.

ISU Extension has played an integral role in designing and evaluating this project. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture provided the grant for extension faculty to conduct the project.