Iowa could do so much better with local food availability

Agriculture is and always has been a major part of Iowa’s economy, but given our abundance of world-class farmland, we could do much more to make local food available to Iowans. When the non-profit food advocacy group Strolling of the Heifers introduced its “Locavore Index” two years ago, Iowa ranked second only to Vermont in terms of local food availability. At that time, the index measured per-capita presence of Community-Supported Agricultural enterprises and farmers markets.

Last year, Strolling of the Heifers added a third component to the index: the per capita presence of “food hubs,” those “facilities that handle the aggregation, distribution and marketing of foods from a group of farms and food producers in a region.” Iowa dropped to fifth place on the Locavore Index.

For 2014, Strolling of the Heifers added a fourth component: the percentage of school districts with Farm-to-School programs, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Sadly, only 31 percent of Iowa school districts have a Farm-to-School program, putting us below many states with insignificant agricultural output compared to Iowa. We should be doing better seven years after the state legislature first funded Farm-to-School efforts. While our state is still strong in farmers markets per capita, our national rank on the Locavore Index dropped to tenth.

August and September are arguably the best months to shop at Iowa farmers markets. With peak late-summer produce being harvested around the start of the academic year, it’s a shame more Iowa students don’t have access to fresh, local food. We should have more flash-freezing facilities to make it easier for larger facilities to buy local as well–not just public school districts but also nursing homes, hospitals, colleges and universities. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach “provides technical assistance to school food service staff” in six northeast Iowa counties. Here’s hoping that project will expand statewide.

After the jump I’ve posted the Strolling of the Heifers chart showing all state-level data on local food availability. I added the group’s “10 reasons to consume local foods,” covering economic, health, environmental, and taste benefits. Iowa’s Healthiest State Initiative doesn’t include a strong local food component, although it promotes healthier eating at schools. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship administers a few Farm-to-School programs and has provided grants for a few dozen schools to start vegetable gardens each year.

2014 Locavore Index photo LOCAVORE-INDEX-2014-DATA_zps7f7a45df.png

From the 2014 Locavore Index announcement:

Strolling of the Heifers’ 10 reasons to consume local foods:

1. Supports local farms: Buying local food keeps local farms healthy and creates local jobs at farms and in local food processing and distribution systems.

2. Boosts local economy: Food dollars spent at local farms and food producers stay in the local economy, creating more jobs at other local businesses.

3. Less travel: Local food travels much less distance to market than typical fresh or processed grocery store foods, therefore using less fuel and generating fewer greenhouse gases.

4. Less waste: Because of the shorter distribution chains for local foods, less food is wasted in distribution, warehousing and merchandising.

5. More freshness: Local food is fresher, healthier and tastes better, because it spends less time in transit from farm to plate, and therefore loses fewer nutrients and incurs less spoilage.

6. New and better flavors: When you commit to buy more local food, you’ll discover interesting new foods, tasty new ways to prepare food, and a new appreciation of the pleasure of each season’s foods.

7. Good for the soil: Local food encourages diversification of local agriculture, which reduces the reliance on monoculture – single crops grown over a wide area to the detriment of soils.

8. Attracts tourists: Local foods promote agritourism – farmers markets and opportunities to visit farms and local food producers help draw tourists to a region.

9. Preserves open space: Buying local food helps local farms survive and thrive, keeping land from being redeveloped into suburban sprawl.

10. Builds more connected communities: Local foods create more vibrant communities by connecting people with the farmers and food producers who bring them healthy local foods. As customers of CSAs and farmers markets have discovered, they are great places to meet and connect with friends as well as farmers!

The Components of the Index are:

Farmers markets, which are generally cooperative efforts to market locally produced food in a central location where consumers can select and purchase food from multiple farm enterprises.

CSAs (consumer-supported agriculture), which are cooperative agreements between farmers and consumers; consumers buy shares in a farm’s output, and have some say in what is grown. When crops come in, they are divided among shareholders according to the volume of their shares, and the rest may be sold at market. CSA farmers get revenue in advance to cover costs of tilling, soil preparation and seed. Shareholders get fresh produce grown locally and contribute to sustainable farming practices.

Farm-to-School programs, in which schools buy and feature locally produced, farm-fresh foods. Participating schools usually also add nutrition, culinary and food science components to their curriculum, and may experiential learning opportunities such as farm visits, school gardens and composting.

Food hubs, which are facilities that handle the aggregation, distribution and marketing of foods from a group of farms and food producers in a region. Food hubs are often cooperatively owned, though many are private enterprises.

  • We need a statewide food hub/online farmer's market

    We need a statewide food hub or online farmer’s market.  Many times, an area will have an abundance of a certain item, like tomatoes, while a neighboring area may be short.  We need to link local producers and farmer’s markets online so that consumers and institutional customers can find the produce they are looking for, even if it is the next county.

    If Bill Northey wasn’t running the Department of Ag, I’d say this is a role they should play.  But he is too busy extolling the virtues of Monsanto.  How about the Leopold Center?  

    In this Internet/information age, we need a better way for farmers and customers to find each other.

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