Iowa communities examine their strengths and challenges in building local food systems

February 14, 2017
food systems hand veggiesby Leigh Adcock, Communications Specialist

As demand for locally grown foods continues to rise, more Iowans are taking a look at the factors that affect the creation of expansion of local food systems in their communities. As the name implies, a local food system encompasses many factors. These include producers, markets, nutritional education, institutional buyers such as schools and hospitals, built infrastructure, processing, and much more.

To get an accurate picture of the enabling and hindering factors affecting a community takes strategic analysis and candid, sometimes difficult, conversations. One process that communities can use to analyze their strengths and challenges is through the “community capitals” framework.  Community members rank their own status in seven areas: social capital, human capital, political capital, cultural capital, built capital, financial capital, and natural capital.

Food systems analysis

Ahna Kruzic was a graduate research assistant with the Local Foods Program in 2015-16. She conducted a community capitals analysis of six communities as part of her dissertation. Three were outside of Iowa (Milwaukee, Portland, Oregon, and the state of Vermont) and three in Iowa (Cedar Rapids, Decorah, and Des Moines). The research she did with the Iowa communities was presented to each city’s local foods coalition in a final report. Here is a summary of some of the findings.

  1. Relationships are key to creating a successful local food system. All three communities identified social capital as critical. They often cited this element as a conduit to improving capacity in the other six areas. Some interviewees felt that the sheer number of people currently working on various aspects of the food system makes it hard to keep track of who is doing what. This confusion can be eased if a coalition is formed around local foods work. It should meet regularly and serve as a networking hub for sharing news and resources. Some said farmers who are also leaders in the community can be invaluable to a food system’s growth. (Social capital.)
  2. Availability of skilled farm labor can be a challenge, particularly in rural areas. Some farmers said they rely on relationships with area colleges. They can provide not only expanded markets, but access to students looking for summer jobs. (Human capital.)
  3. food systems vineyardCouching local foods efforts in terms of personal and community health can increase interest from general audiences in local foods work. For example, one participant provided information about the nutrient content of fresh produce and short, fun facts about the importance of highlighted nutrients. This resulted in increased interests in produce and local foods from low-income clients who visited a free food access location. (Human capital.)
  4. None of the interviewees felt that federal farm policy had much impact on local foods systems, positive or negative. But they stressed that local and county support are vital. They noted that it can be difficult to make a case for localized, small-scale agriculture in a commodity-crop focused state like Iowa. Some communities are investing in food policy councils. These bodies can help them research and develop supportive policy at the local level. Policies can include less restrictive zoning for producers, permanent market and garden spaces, etc. Local foods leaders reported success at building local political capital by informing their local elected leaders about their work from the beginning. (Political capital.)
  5. All communities reported challenges with engaging diverse populations in their local foods systems work. They identified not only racial and ethnic diversity but income stratification as areas of concern. Interviewees cited factors including lack of cultural awareness training within organizations, high poverty rates, and a lack of public transportation. Some reported that groups such as service organizations and faith-based groups do a better job of connecting with diverse populations than farmers markets. They recommended locating food access points at places already frequented by populations who may be food-insecure, such as schools or clinics. Providing simple recipe cards with produce at food access points increased interest in fresh and local foods among a wider consumer base. (Cultural capital.)
  6. Communities value their food coops, food hubs, and natural food stores. These businesses can serve not only as markets and sources of healthy, locally grown foods, but as hubs for information and education for the general public on the value of local food systems. Several interviews mentioned lack of availability of meat processing facilities as a barrier. Another was the lack of aggregation and distribution facilities. (Built capital.)
  7. Researching, writing, and collaborating on grant proposals is time-consuming and challenging, but can pay off for large-scale projects. Successfully completing and publicizing a grant project can lead to more funding opportunities in a region. Most interviewees preferred foundation grants to navigating the maze of USDA program grants. Some mentioned that the FSA’s new microloan program is helpful for local foods producers. Local banks who are friendly to diversified, smaller-scale loan applications can be a real asset as well. Some interviewees felt that although their local funding climate is positive, too many organizations are competing for a limited amount of funds. Again, collaboration will be critical. (Financial capital.)
  8. food systems ahna
    Ahna Kruzic

    Natural capital was not a significant factor for any of the communities. In Cedar Rapids, the tragic floods of 2008 resulted in the availability of more ground for community gardens. In Des Moines, some mentioned that the topsoil often requires a lot of amendments to make it productive. Others said climate change has made growing seasons unpredictable. In Decorah, some feel the rolling hills have been a benefit to local food systems development. That’s because the topography isn’t conducive to large-scale commodity agriculture. (Natural capital.)

To read the results of Ahna’s community capitals research with the three communities outside of Iowa, see the publication Determining Factors for Local Food System Success (LF 0014).

For information about the ISU Extension and Outreach Community Food Systems Program and its community assessment services, click here.