Community Efforts Fight Food Insecurity and Hunger

AMES, Iowa – Many Iowans greet the New Year resolving to eat more nutritiously after overindulging on holiday treats. However, Iowans who are food insecure — roughly 12 percent of Iowa households according to USDA data — are more concerned about whether they’ll be able to eat at all on any given day. People who are food insecure live an ongoing struggle with limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate and safe foods.

Yet community groups and organizations including Iowa State University Extension aren’t giving up hope that all Iowans can have access to affordable, healthy foods.
“The tendency is too often to focus on what’s going wrong,” said Brenda Ranum, ISU Extension regional education director in Northeast Iowa. “Instead of focusing on the problem, we try to see what’s going right and what people want for a better future, which gives people the energy and enthusiasm to make a change.”
In many counties, ISU Extension and partnering organizations and community groups have taken the initiative to increase access to local food producers and food pantries, as well as provide nutrition education.

Iowa Hunger Summit Fights Hunger and Poor Food Quality

Each October the Iowa Hunger Summit brings together a variety of organizations for a daylong event in Des Moines, Iowa. This year ISU Extension representatives were among more than 500 people from various state agencies, nonprofits, foundations, businesses, religious organizations and educational institutions sharing their approaches to fighting hunger and improving food security in Iowa. The highlight of each year’s luncheon is the announcement of Iowa’s total contribution to the fight against hunger in the previous year. Justin Hayes, Iowa Hunger Summit coordinator, provided the numbers announced at the 2010 summit:
  • At least $9.38 million donated ($8.72 million in 2009)
  • More than 18.6 million pounds of food distributed (15.6 million in 2009)
  • 540,000 hours volunteered (451,000 hours in 2009)
The goals of the Iowa Hunger Summit and ISU Extension coincide and that makes a natural collaboration to improve quality of life in Iowa, said Kimberly Greder, an ISU Extension specialist and associate professor in human development and family studies. Extension works toward creative solutions to strengthen local and regional food systems, which includes increasing access to food for all Iowans. 
Greder plans and facilitates discussion among researchers, practitioners and policy makers. She advocates ways to strengthen Iowa’s capacity to ensure regular access to food for all Iowans.
“It’s important for organizations to learn from one another,” said Greder.  “At the Iowa Hunger Summit, they can learn how different communities are finding solutions to address and lessen food insecurity and hunger.”

Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative

At the 2010 Hunger Summit, Ranum shared results from the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, a project co-coordinated by ISU Extension.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation designated Northeast Iowa as one of nine communities to become models of change. The foundation provided Northeast Iowa with funding to create a multi-year plan for Allamakee, Chickasaw, Clayton, Fayette, Howard and Winneshiek counties. The Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative was created to address policies, practices and systems that support healthy communities and provide affordable food every day for all people in the region.
This rural area of Northeast Iowa consists of thinly populated communities with a total of 100,000 people in the region.  The population is made up of the working poor, said Ranum.  Many of the region’s citizens run farming operations in addition to their factory or “town” jobs. 
By partnering with organizations like the Community Vitality Center and the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Coalition, the initiative is able to expand local food production and businesses.  More people are not only allowed access to food, but to healthy and local food by a coordination of efforts to stimulate production.
“By tracking food sales from just four to five producers, last year our region saw an increase of more than $1.2 million in increased local food sales, bringing local food sales to more than $1.7 million last year,” she said. 
To begin the project, community leaders and ISU Extension specialists identified the strengths of the six counties that make up the Northeast region. These strengths, which include their youth, their schools and their ability to grow healthy food, were capitalized to provide access to healthy, locally grown foods for every community. 
The goals of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative are to ensure school district policies support healthy living of children, families and community members; and to ensure local, healthy food is available and affordable in all communities, neighborhoods and institutions.
Ranum and other ISU Extension specialists worked with community members to identify common issues and goals regarding food quality and availability. Various community factions, including agriculture, education and youth, joined together in a common goal.  
“Northeast Iowa was able to develop a strategic plan to change the future through the collaboration of different youth and community sectors,” she said. “The key to our success is focusing on what we have in common and the continual effort to communicate what we are doing and learning.”
The initiative uses regional learning communities, youth action and Farm to School and Buy Fresh, Buy Local programs to reach its goals.  The Farm to School project encourages purchasing locally grown food to support local producers and provide freshly grown Iowa produce to schools and businesses. The project helps bring education, school gardens and quality food access to life by increasing food education.
“In the first year of implementation we saw schools not only learn how to procure and use local foods,” said Ranum. “They increased their purchases of local foods by $5,500, bringing their total food purchases for one year to over $9,000 for six schools.
To learn more about the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative and its work to increase access to locally and regionally produced foods, contact Brenda Ranum at