Project pilots mobile processing unit for independent grocers, local food producers

Local produce display at El Michoacano Tienda y Taqueria, Denison, Iowa.

Fresh, locally sourced foods could become more widely available to Iowans thanks to a unique partnership between Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Community and Economic Development (CED) and Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) programs.

With funding from the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC), researchers in CED and on ANR’s Food Systems team will be piloting a small-scale, mobile cart that will process fruits and vegetables, with the ultimate goal of developing a full-scale processing unit. The small-scale processing unit would be compact enough for independent grocers to affordably add value to their fresh produce by chopping, dicing, and slicing fruits and vegetables on site. The full-scale, trailer-sized model would broaden the capacity to accommodate farm-scale processing, making it easier for local growers to get their value-added products to multiple markets.

Through additional funding from AgMRC, CED and Food Systems team specialists are  collaborating on multiple projects. This summer and fall, the team will be identifying best-practice case studies across the United States and its territories. This study will highlight the best practices of independent grocers working with local food producers to stock their shelves. A full report of these best practices will be available early in 2024. CED and Food Systems team specialists are also conducting a feasibility study that involves surveying local community leaders across the United States to identify communities desiring to implement a brick-and-mortar facility in their local area for producers to utilize for processing efforts.

The idea for mobile food-processing units, the case studies, and the feasibility study were conceived in response to the results of an AgMRC-funded study of current conditions for independent grocers to function as points access to locally sourced food products in Iowa, Kansas, and Minnesota. The study was conducted by researchers from ISU Extension and Outreach, Kansas State University, and the University of Minnesota in 2021.

The goal of the study was to better understand independent grocers' and food producers’ needs and sourcing issues, and their capacity and equipment to process food. The research team conducted a survey of independent grocers, followed by interviews with both grocers and food producers.

Of 671 independent grocers identified in Iowa, only 14.2% completed the survey. Although the response rate was low, representation across the state was good, with 60% of the 99 counties represented. The survey asked grocers if they would be willing to take part in interviews. The three states identified 15 grocers from among the responses and 15 producers located within 60 miles of those grocers to interview.

Most of the grocers in Iowa indicated that they would like a statewide network of independent grocers for help with business, financial issues, networking, and regulations and expressed the need to build relationships among farm and food businesses, grocers, and buyers. The producers interviewed in Iowa are interested in creating best practices for business models and financial-planning practices for diversified farm and food businesses. Producers also want to scale up or add additional value-added products for market diversification.

The results from all three states are published in a report titled Midwest Independent Grocery Stores: Identifying and Sourcing from Local Producers, which is available for download from the AgMRC website (