Everyone in our community has connections to food. Food is essential to our health and well-being. It plays a central role in the social networks and cultural traditions that help define community. However, communities rarely see opportunities for development in the food and farming connections that make up our local food system. We see a globalized and industrialized food system, often leaving farmers and consumers separated by distance and understanding. Produce eaten in the Midwest travels on average more than 1,500 miles and the typical consumer doesn’t imagine his steak as “livestock,” let alone appreciate the resources used in the production. Yet, we can address current pressing issues as diverse as obesity, urban sprawl and economic development in part by paying closer attention to our food system. A food system includes who, what, where, when, why and how of our food travels from farm to plate.
The concept behind local food is based on one central idea: when food is grown, processed and sold locally, it is better for farmers, better for communities, better for the environment, and better for you. *In the early 1900s, almost all agricultural systems were local food systems, but with the technological innovations of the 20th century, most of the local facilities, *transportation, delivery systems, and marketing connections have disappeared. Much of what remains is designed for agricultural scales well beyond the *needs of local food. Generally, local food implies both that all *production, processing and retail of food occurs within a specific locality; and all production, processing and retail are locally owned.
For consumers, local food is an opportunity not only to eat fresher, tastier food, it is an opportunity to “vote with dollars” for a more transparent food system that aligns with values of sustainability and community. For small and mid-sized farmers, local food is an opportunity to disengage from some of the price and efficiency pressures of commodity agriculture, to market a value-added product, to adopt more sustainable practices, and to develop relationships with different marketing venues and individual consumers. For processors, retailers, restaurants and institutions, local food is an opportunity to provide for distinct needs in a growing sector of the food economy while also supporting local farms and an alternative vision for agriculture. For everybody, local food requires more relationships and a deeper knowledge of the food you eat, emphasizing its unique character in the marketplace.
Usually we think of food as following a linear path from farm to table. Food is produced on farms, processed in factories, distributed by trucks and purchased by consumers at grocery stores or restaurants.
Thinking, instead, of the food system as a circle reminds us that we are all links in multiple ways. By paying attention to these connections and strengthening them within our community, we begin to see that a host of outcomes are possible. The outer ring in the Circle suggests some of the outcomes of a community based food system. In our discussions, we will be using this Circle of Connections diagram to focus attention on the connections between food and farming in Northeast Iowa. Let the diagram be your lens to see new opportunities and partners that will make your community a better place to work and live.
Our discussions on the local food system in NE IA will take place in 3 sessions. First we will look back over the last two years. Specifically we will be looking the history of the NE IA Food and Farm Coalition and their work on a food system that had brought us to the point we are at now. Next, we will look at the current status of our food system and what the NIFF Coalition has learned about our area. Finally, we will start looking toward the future. What are the opportunities for producers, consumers, retailers, processors and others in the food system? What do we want the food system in NE IA to look like?
In order to understand the current status of the local food movement in NE Iowa, we need to take some time to learn more about the work of the NE IA Food and Farm coalition or NIFF Coalition. The NIFF Coalition is a group of people who care about the future of agriculture in NE IA.
Their story starts two years ago in November 2005 when agriculture commodity groups in Winneshiek county met to talk about telling the story of agriculture. The producers were seeing a disconnect between downtown businesses, local chambers and city administrators. They recognized the importance of telling the story of agriculture to area residents. As the conversations continued, they invited all areas of agriculture production to participate. Producers eventually came to the realization that it wasn’t about which commodity is better or more important to the area, it was more about promotion and support of agriculture in general.
Some of the farmers had previously heard a speech by Ken Meter, an ag economist from the Crossroads Resource Center. He specializes in producing data for different regions of the country and he was invited to talk about “Finding Food in NE IA.” He presented some shocking data about the current state of the ag economy. Despite becoming more efficient and more cost effective in their farming operations, farmers are continuing to struggle financially. Then Meter posed the question,* “Why don’t we grow our own food in the American Heartland?”
The message was sobering to those who heard it. It also made a lot of sense. It was becoming clear that we are experiencing a system problem and not an individual problem. The agriculture system that currently exists results in the erosion of wealth for individuals, communities, the state and the nation. When the information was confirmed by other economists from across the state, it became clear that we needed to address the future of agriculture in NE IA.
Around the same time these conversations were taking place, Fred Kirschenmann from the Leopold Center echoed the group’s thinking, “It is becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to ignore the fact that we may be entering an era that will force agriculture to change more in the coming decades that it has in the last half century.”
Instead of waiting for agriculture to change, the group contacted the Leopold Center. They suggested that stakeholders go through a strategic planning process. Over 30 people participated in the conversations that included farmers, ag lenders, processors, agribusiness professionals, non-profits and agency staff from Allamakee, Winneshiek and Howard counties. Through this process, the assets, strengths and opportunities of the area were identified as well as the barriers and challenges. The focus of the conversations quickly narrowed to food production as a strength in the area. We already had farmers producing and marketing food at the local, regional and national levels and we already had outlets for direct sales of local foods at farmers markets, CSAs and a food coop.
In April 2006, the Leopold Center and the Regional Food System Working Group from Iowa State University named the NIFF Coalition as their pilot community for local food system development. The coalition has been awarded funding to help with data collection. Since then three other groups have been named as project areas.
Coalition members quickly realized there were lots of questions that needed to be answered. What can be grown in our area? What are the markets? What are the opportunities surrounding local food? NIFF decided to do 5 assessments. They took a systems approach from the beginning because they realized fixing only one part of the food chain wouldn’t be the answer. The assessments included an Institutional Survey: What are the purchasing patterns of institutions like schools, hospitals, care centers, restaurants ? A Consumer Household Survey investigated the purchasing patterns of local food products of consumers in the region. The assets in the area were mapped to find out what fruits, vegetables, dairy, poultry and meat products are produced in our region? An Economic Impact study was completed to determine the impact of growing food products. An finally, the base-line sales of local foods was collected so progress could be measured. Data from these assessments will be presented in upcoming webcasts.
Schools FFI Food1 Nov122008
Building a Local
Part 1: How Did We Get Here?
NE Iowa Food & Farm Coalition
“Why don’t we grow our
own food in the
“It is becoming increasingly difficult for
Americans to ignore the fact that we may be
entering an era that will force agriculture to
change more in the coming decades than it
has in the last half century.”
Fred Kirschenmann, Director of the Leopold
Center for Sustainable Agriculture, December 2005