AMES, Iowa – Food systems partners from five states are working together on a newly funded grant project from the United States Department of Agriculture that will create a resource hub for regional food systems practitioners in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Known as the Heartland Regional Food Business Center, the web-based information center will help connect local food entrepreneurs, food purchasers and anyone with a connection to regional and local food systems.
The $25 million project is one of 12 funded across the country and includes funding for innovative projects designed to invest in food processing and distribution capacity, build resilience in the middle supply chain, and strengthen local and regional food systems.
“We have an amazing food system in this country, but I think covid and the pandemic really highlighted some of the challenges we face in our food system,” said Christa Hartsook, small farms program coordinator with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “The partners involved with this project represent a broad array of experts who can help food entrepreneurs scale their business and get local food to where it is really needed.”
The business centers selected were announced in early May, and again on May 23, when Jennifer Lester Moffitt, under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs at USDA, visited the University of Nebraska for a roundtable discussion.
“USDA recognizes that local and regional food systems are essential to the overall food supply chain and the new Regional Food Business Centers are the cornerstone of our efforts to support them,” said Moffitt. “The resources and diverse knowledge offered through the centers will make the opportunities available through dozens of USDA programs more accessible to small and mid-sized producers and food and farm businesses.”
The project is still in its infancy, but Hartsook said the partners are actively reviewing the resources available in each state and how to best move forward with the creation of the business centers. Later this summer, she plans to hire an additional small farms team member at Iowa State, who will help implement the goals of the Heartland Regional Food Business Center.
Although the center will not have a physical location, the online portal will be available to anyone who wants to find information, resources and connections that help further their involvement within their region. Farmers will be able to connect with local schools about meal programs, while farmers markets can connect with community leaders and rural residents can connect with locally owned grocery stores.
By strengthening connections between rural and urban areas, the Regional Food Business Centers will seek to drive economic opportunities across the region, creating a more diversified and resilient food system.
Collectively, the organizations selected to lead each center reflect a cross-section of the varied institutions, organizations, and associations that are necessary to achieve strong food systems with broad reach. These organizations are engaging with grassroots food and farm organizations and employing a range of creative strategies to build food system resiliency.
“We’re very excited about these regional food business centers, and we’re really excited about the partners on the ground,” said Moffitt. “I believe very strongly in locally led solutions, that we do more when people who are trusted in the region, who know the region, who already have partnerships in the region, are empowered and have the funding to be able to come together to overcome complex challenges and find creative solutions.”
For more information on the 12 regional food business centers, visit the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service website.
Shareable photos: 1. Harvesting sweet potatoes in Iowa.
2. Partners of the newly created Heartland Regional Food Business Center, including Christa Hartsook, small farms program coordinator with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. All attendees include (back row, from left) Katie Zenk, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Leah Vinton, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim; Jennifer Lester Moffitt, USDA; Bill McKelvey, University of Missouri Extension; Rachel McGinnis Millsap, Kansas City Healthy Kids; Nancy Williams, No More Empty Pots; Mike Boehm, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources; and Christa Hartsook, Iowa State University; (front row, from left) Lizandra Lorenzo, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim; Bill Crooks, Food Conservancy; Katie Nixon, New Growth Community Development Corporation; Mary Emery, Rural Prosperity Nebraska; and Dominga Francisco, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim (Russell Shaffer photo).