Sometimes all it takes is one committed local official

I hadn’t noticed this article in the Des Moines Register, but Marshalltown resident noneed4thneed passed along the good news at Century of the Common Iowan. A Marshall County ordinance will prohibit retailers from providing plastic bags or non-recyclable paper bags for customers’ purchases.

Several countries have banned plastic bags, not only because they clutter up landfills and pose a threat to wildlife, but also because producing plastic bags uses a lot of crude oil. Ireland took the approach of heavily taxing plastic bags, which quickly reduced their use by 94 percent.

But why is this happening in Marshall County, Iowa? San Francisco was the first community in the U.S. to ban plastic bags (at large grocery stores), and that ordinance went into effect just seven months ago.

Noneed gives the credit to Marshall County Supervisor Patrick Brooks. Since he was elected in 2006, Marshall County has also passed an ordinance to promote the use of small wind turbines.

If you are involved with the sustainable agriculture movement, you may know that Woodbury County, Iowa (where Sioux City is located) became the first county in the nation to provide tax incentives for organic farming practices in 2005. That ordinance was the brainchild of Rob Marqusee, the rural economic development director for Woodbury County.

Not only that, Marqusee got the Woodbury County supervisors to adopt the “Local Food Purchase Policy” in 2006 that was also the first of its kind of the country. The policy was

a resolution to mandate the purchase of locally grown organic food, through its food service contractor, when departments of Woodbury County serves food in its usual course of business. The resolution has the potential of shifting $281,000 in annual food purchases to a local farmer-operated cooperative, thus increasing local demand that will spur increased production and processing.

[…]

The Local Food Purchase policy defines “local” as that food which is grown and processed within 100 miles of Sioux City, Iowa, and the limitation may be extended if there is not a supplier within that radius. […]

The policy supports the Organics Conversion Policy that was adopted by the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors on June 28, 2005; the Local Food Purchase Policy provides a market for those farmers that convert to organic production of certain items needed for the Woodbury County facilities. Transitional crops are included in the mandatory sections of this policy. […]

As the first county in the nation to mandate local purchase of organic food products, the policy enumerates price provisions that protect the county from significant increased costs that may result from this policy. “This is not a subsidy of local farmers. It is expected that, with the savings from reduced transportation costs, and bulk sales of local food, the price will remain competitive with historic costs for these food items. If the price of the food materially increases, or if those increases defeat the net benefit to the county of buying locally produced food, Woodbury County can opt out of the agreement,” said Rob Marqusee.

Because the availability of supply of locally grown organic food will not meet demand, the policy gives a strong preference for local non-organic food production to meet unmet demand. “We want to support all of our farmers through this policy; while organic products are given preference through a single-point-of-contact broker cooperative, individual non-organic farmers can participate through listing their products with the county,” said Rob Marqusee.

Progressives in Iowa often expect liberal college towns to be the first to adopt the policies we want, as when Iowa City adopted the first Complete Streets ordinance in our state.

I met Marqusee two years ago and asked him how on earth he got the organic farming tax credit and local food purchase ordinances through the Woodbury County supervisors. He told me he met individually with each supervisor, explained the realities of the farm economy and the economic benefits of promoting the use of more organic and local foods in the area. These forward-thinking ordninances then passed the supervisors unanimously.

Kudos to people like Patrick Brooks and Rob Marqusee, who are truly thinking globally and acting locally. It goes to show how much one committed person can accomplish.

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