Local Foods Program
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
Iowa’s economy has relied on agriculture for most of its history. As demand for local food rises statewide, an increasing number of Iowans are engaged in building and expanding the food systems that can meet that demand. They are participating along the entire food-chain spectrum, from beginning farmers, to established commodity farmers diversifying their production, to the distributors and aggregators helping farmers get their products to the ever-growing number of institutional buyers like grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, and schools.
Iowans spend more than $8 billion on food each year, of which only about 14 percent is grown in the state. Research by Iowa State University economist David Swenson indicates that increased production of fruits and vegetables could result in a corresponding increase in jobs and income for many Iowans. The most recent figures on horticulture production in Iowa show that the industry in 2015 generated $48.3 million in direct sales and an additional $32.1 million in value-added commerce (including labor income, returns to farm owners and investors, and tax payments), for a total of more than $80 million in economic activity. And the demand for delicious, healthy, locally grown foods shows no sign of going anywhere but up.
In response to this opportunity to grow and diversify Iowa’s agricultural economy, ISU has ramped up its investment in local food systems statewide by creating the Local Foods Program within Extension and Outreach. Its staff of 10, with the support of several undergraduate interns and graduate research assistants, supports local food systems with leadership training and professional development; research-based, needs-driven tools and publications; evaluation services and training; facilitation and outreach services; support for youth education in gardening and nutrition; and help building diverse coalitions and partnerships, locally and statewide.
Building robust local food systems can benefit Iowa communities in multiple ways. Growing for local markets can provide a lower-cost point of entry into agriculture for beginners than larger scale, commodity-market farming. Local food systems create other business opportunities for distributors and aggregators (i.e., food hubs), keep sales dollars circulating in the community, give commodity growers a means of diversifying their income streams, and help children and their families connect to healthy, local food products.
Here are a few examples of how local food systems are providing new opportunities for Iowans:
- In northeast Iowa, the non-profit Iowa Food Hub (IFH) created by ISU Extension and other partners has worked with a group of small farmers to help them sell their products to large buyers in the area, including school districts and other institutions. In 2015, IFH purchased $508,439 from local farmers and reached the milestone of purchasing a total of $1 million from farmers since its start in 2012. As of July 2016, a total of 67 farmers or farmers groups were selling products to the IFH. In addition to vegetables, the hub helped several area schools source locally grown turkey, beef, and pork. The resulting school lunches were some of the most popular of the year! (See photo.) About 30 hubs are operating around Iowa right now, providing the vital link between producers and large-volume buyers.
Want to learn more about the Iowa Food Hub? Visit them at www.iowafoodhub.com. If you’re interested in the way food hubs work and resources to help them succeed, visit the Local Foods Program web page at www.extension.iastate.edu/localfoods/food-hubs.
- The number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms also continues to grow. This model allows consumers in the region of the farm to sign up for a “share” of produce delivered or picked up weekly during the growing season. Subscription fees are collected at the beginning of the growing season, giving the farmer the funds to purchase inputs. The farmer and subscriber share the risks and benefits of the growing season together. Most CSA farms allow subscribers to work on the farm for a portion of their fee, and all welcome customers to visit and see how the products are grown. The annual stateside CSA directory published by the Local Foods Program can help you connect with CSA farmers in your area. Watch for it in mid-March on this page: www.extension.iastate.edu/localfoods/publications/
- Iowa communities are recognizing the importance of local food systems in their planning efforts. Some communities have created local food policy councils. Others have invested in hiring a local food coordinator, who connects the diverse set of partners in the community to make a local food system work. You can find out who is working on local food systems development in your county and find out what projects are currently underway by checking out the Regional Food Systems Working Group page at this link: www.extension.iastate.edu/localfoods/regional-food-systems-working-group. This group of people working to build thriving local food systems gathers quarterly to network and share ideas and resources, facilitated by the Local Foods Program.
If your interest is piqued in how you can participate in growing Iowa’s local food movement, the Local Foods Program welcomes your comments and questions! You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the website staff page to write a staff member directly: www.extension.iastate.edu/localfoods/staff-page.