Multi-Part Series
11:18 am
Fri May 2, 2014

The Local Food Challenge

Harvest Public Media’s three-part series takes a look at the growing national popularity of local foods.

Part 1: Public, Private Partners Key to Local Food Success

By Amy Mayer

As FoodCorps service member Ashley Turk navigates her way through a brand-new greenhouse in the courtyard at Waukon High School in the northeast corner of Iowa, she points to a robust supply of red and green lettuce leaves growing neatly in rows.

“It’s huge,” she says. “We cut it off and it just keeps growing.”

Students at Waukon High School in Iowa grow carrots, tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables for school lunches in an on-campus greenhouse.
Students at Waukon High School in Iowa grow carrots, tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables for school lunches in an on-campus greenhouse.
Credit Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

The greenhouse lettuce is among the offerings in the school’s salad bar. And students will soon be growing carrots, tomatoes and other vegetables, Turks says.

The schools in Waukon are part of a thriving local food movement in a six-county region of Northeast Iowa. Nationwide, the popularity of local food has skyrocketed over the last two decades. Available figures are somewhat hazy, but in the 1990s, local food sales in the U.S. were likely under half a billion dollars. In 2008, the most recent year for which USDA has published statistics, that figure approached $5 billion. But, as advocates in northeast Iowa and around the country can attest, it’s hard to make local food work.

Turk is one of several AmeriCorps and FoodCorps members who are spending their year of service working with local growers, school districts, non-profits and colleges to support the network that has made local food popular here.

“Being in FoodCorps is kind of like a domestic Peace Corps,” Turk said, “but it’s unique in that it’s (supported by) public-private partnerships. So it’s 20 percent funded by AmeriCorps and then 80 percent funded by private donors.”

In addition to coordinating some of the student work in the greenhouse, Turk’s job includes teaching after-school cooking classes and supporting the connections between the schools and the other partners in the local food system. That such a job—or FoodCorps itself—even exists speaks to the tenacity of local food advocates.

Initially, they thought closer-to-home food supplies would prevent shortages in times of disaster and would bring healthy, fresh food to more people, says historian Maureen Ogle, who touches on the origins of the local food movement in her book In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America.

“In the 1970s, they began agitating, lobbying, the USDA to get financial and official support,” Ogle said of the savvy political activists who launched the movement.

They used private funding to get their ideas off the ground. But once they had some programs underway, such as farmers’ markets, the public started to catch on. Then, Congress took notice.

“The first seven or eight years of success in getting into the farm bill consisted of getting at least official recognition,” Ogle said.

Public funding came later, but it did finally come. Today, USDA’s Know Your Farmer Know Your Food campaign oversees the department’s myriad programs that support local food efforts. And this year, President Obama signed what could be called the most “local food-friendly” farm bill yet. It triples the funding from the previous farmers market program and expands it to include other local food promotion efforts. 

“We've received funding from USDA Rural Development, especially around our food aggregation piece,” said Iowa State University extension agent Teresa Wiemerslage, who works closely with farmers and buyers through the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Coalition. The program is part of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, a project funded through the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.  

Wiemerslage says combining public support for local food with private grant money creates more opportunities to help farmers market products, benefit from research and learn or acquire new technologies. All of these activities also help build the community connections vital to nurturing a local market.

“That’s what’s really great about the model that we have in northeast Iowa,” Wiemerslage said. “We have enough partners around the table where we can strategically think about what’s going to move the work ahead the best.”

The goal, of course, is sustainable business practices for the farms that will outlive the early cycles of grant funding. So innovation remains a constant. When USDA handed down new rules for school lunches requiring fruits and vegetables every day, Wiemerslage saw an opportunity.  

“How can we make sure that we have a value chain that starts with the production here, and ends up feeding our kids at the schools where they spend all their time?” she and organizers wondered.

Wiemerslage helped convene meetings between food service personnel and farmers and together they designed menus built around local offerings. In Decorah, Iowa, about 20 miles from Waukon, fresh salsa from local tomatoes became a regular on fall menus. There, too, produce from school gardens helped expand the fresh vegetable offerings.

“The school is trying to cut down on using salt, to make the food healthier,” said Briana Burke, a senior who has grown food for school meals. “By putting more herbs in, it definitely makes it taste better.”

In the fall, the students regularly roll a brimming wheelbarrow into the school’s kitchen, with lettuce and tomatoes but also watermelons, peppers and squash that the food service staff incorporates into the breakfasts and lunches served each day.

Growing some produce on site keeps prices low for schools, but increasingly the schools in this area are finding buying from local farms is affordable. And plenty of growers are happy to meet the demand. Because as the concept of local food systems matures, the customer base no longer has to be an individual person or family. And the producers don’t have to be only the smallest farms, selling directly at a farmer’s market or farmstand. Wiemerslage says, increasingly, farm businesses are starting as, or segueing into, operations intended to provide produce for schools and other institutional or commercial markets in the local area.

With the local food train firmly out of the station, whole communities, including the many places where people shop and eat, are getting on board. And that may be the key to moving local food systems from grant-funded projects to permanent fixtures.

Part 2: Local Farmers Try to Tap Bigger Markets

By Jeremy Bernfeld

Farm stands and farmers markets remain really important for many local farmers, but U.S. consumers barely buy any food directly from farms. That’s why local farmers are trying to crack in to the big institutional markets such as grocery stores, work cafeterias, schools and hospitals.

Local food sales numbers are hard to come by, but direct-to-consumer sales accounted for just .8 percent of food agricultural sales in 2007, the year with data that U.S. Department of Agriculture reports usually cite. The number is growing, but food sales through what is called “intermediated markets” – farmers’ sales to local grocers, restaurants and other institutions – account for the vast majority of food buying.

“Still 80-90 percent of all food consumed is through the intermediated markets,” said Craig Chase of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Samara Davis shops at the small Harvest Learning Center market in the basement of her Kansas City, Mo., church. It’s part of an effort for local farmers to expand their customer base.
Samara Davis shops at the small Harvest Learning Center market in the basement of her Kansas City, Mo., church. It’s part of an effort for local farmers to expand their customer base.
Credit Jeremy Bernfeld/Harvest Public Media

Farmers are slowly tapping in to the big markets. Farmer sales to intermediated markets accounted for about half of the nearly $5 billion in local food sales in 2011, according to USDA numbers. (PDF) But many farmers are hoping more access to institutions and big markets will lead to bottom-line growth. And with the market for local food maturing over the last two decades, they’ll have to expand beyond local weekend markets to create viable, sustainable businesses.

Farm-to-school programs are big buyers of local food and often serve as a pathway to creating a viable local food economy. Almost 40,000 schools across the country have some sort of a farm to school program, according to the USDA’s Farm-to-School Census, and schools spent over $300 million on local food in the 2011-2012 school year.

Schools are local and they feed a lot of people every day. That makes them ripe proving grounds for local farmers, says Linda Jo Doctor of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which supports research and projects dealing with local food.

“The interest in farm to school has actually led the way for the transformation for community food systems,” Doctor said. “There’s been an invitation for other institutions to come on board.”

Many hospitals have been trying to source more locally, both in their cafeterias and in patient meals. Advocacy group Healthcare Without Harm says 495 hospitals nationwide have signed a pledge to buy more food they say is local, nutritious and from sustainable sources. Local food is a staple on many college campuses and many Head Start programs and other preschools integrate local food into the meals they serve.

As more and more institutions decide to source locally, they’re using lessons learned from farm-to- school programs, according to Colleen Matts who works with local food systems at Michigan State University.

“We have a lot of experience and a lot of models to drawn at this point to help these other institutions get to their goals faster than schools were able to,” Matts said. “Because (schools) were that first frontier.”

It’s hard, though, to get local food to many of these institutions, whether hospital cafeterias or preschool programs. Individual small farmers can’t necessarily provide the bulk orders that food service directors need. And many big institutions don’t have a full service kitchen – they need pre-cut apple slices or baby carrots.

Many big buyers work within slight margins and can’t afford to pay extra for local food.

“One of the issues is profitability,” Iowa State’s Craig Chase said. “Can they pay the price that is needed to pay to make it profitable for the farmer?”

Churches, too, are a new market for local farmers. The World Harvest Ministries church in Kansas City’s Ivanhoe neighborhood recently set-up a small grocery store in its basement. It carries many local products thanks to a partnership with Good Natured Family Farms, a group of about 150 small farms within 200 miles of Kansas City.

The small store serves dual purposes: it provides fresh, healthy food in an area lacking grocery stores and it provides a new customer base for local farmers.

“The idea is, rather than trying to bus people to farmers’ markets we decided to take food to where the neighborhoods are,” said Diana Endicott, who runs Good Natured Family Farms. “We found churches are the best base that we have because the community already gathers there.”

For Terry Glenn, pastor of World Harvest Ministries, the small store could help both his parishioners and the neighborhood.

“With so much diabetes and high blood pressure plagued in our families, they know something is wrong but they never connect it to the table,” Glenn said. “They don’t connect it to what they’re eating.”

The store, which he calls the Harvest Learning Center Market, is supported with grant-funding. Many of Glenn’s customers use food stamp benefits, and thanks to a grant, the store matches some of the money customers using food stamps spend on local food. Glenn says he’s often able to connect with customers on a deeper level than your average neighborhood grocer.

“It’s one thing God wants for all of us,” Glenn said, “to be in good health and prosper as our soul prospers.”

Part 3: Integrated Local Food System Can Grow the Market

By Amy Mayer

The smell of baking dinner rolls fills the kitchen at Decorah High School in northeast Iowa. As two kitchen workers mix a fresh broccoli salad, another, Chad Elliott, ladles tomato soup from a large metal pot on the stove into white plastic buckets for delivery to the town’s elementary schools.

Elliott says most of the food served in the district is made from scratch and many ingredients come from local farms and dairies.

In the kitchen at Decorah (IA) High School, Chad Elliott ladels out tomato soup. The school system sources many ingredients locally.
In the kitchen at Decorah (IA) High School, Chad Elliott ladels out tomato soup. The school system sources many ingredients locally.
Credit Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media

“We’re getting local yogurt now, local beef, locally processed pork,” Elliott said. “We can get anything: tomatoes, cabbage, squash, watermelons, cantaloupe.”

He starts working with area farmers well in advance so they can plant with the school market in mind. And now, a regional food hub that acts as a matchmaker between farmers and buyers makes the connection even easier.

“We can call the food hub and they’ll take care of it for us,” Elliott said, “so it’s really easy to get ahold of locally grown stuff now.”

From the launch of the local food effort in northeast Iowa nine years ago, producers have worked alongside buyers to push for a robust system that integrates local food into everyday life. It takes a lot of work from many different partners to establish and maintain a local food system, but the six-county region in rural Iowa has brought together producers, consumers, schools, businesses and area non-profits to create a strong one that may ultimately serve as a model for other communities.

Though the number of farmers markets has exploded in the past decade, increasingly farmers are finding that larger sales to intermediaries—such as schools and colleges—makes for a more viable local business plan. Food hubs can play an important role and the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that over 260 are now in operation across the country, a 65 percent increase since 2009.

In 2008, when local food sales reached nearly $5 billion, USDA found that farms using intermediated markets made more per capita on local sales than farms selling directly to consumers.  So while farmers markets, farm stands and community supported agriculture sales work well for many farmers and consumers, the key to a sustainable local food initiative is a community-wide system of partners.

One of the farmers dialed in to the local food system is Tom Weighner, whose dairy farm is about seven miles outside of Waukon, Iowa, in a region of rolling hills. He jokes that his cows have the best view of any in Iowa.

It was his children who led Weighner into the local food movement.  He has four daughters and they all hope to continue in the family business. But as that business stood five years ago, he knew it couldn’t support them all.

“We actually were spurred into action in 2009,” Weighner said, “when we had historic low milk prices for basically the whole year.”

To sustain the next generation, Weighner knew his business needed to grow. One option was to build more barns and buy more cows. But he and his business partners decided to branch out instead. They bought an empty building in Waukon, turned it into a creamery and now they produce the ready-to-eat dairy that people want, like butter, ice cream and cheese curds.

“By maintaining ownership of the product right to a retail product,” Weighner said, “we thought it would give us more control over the price of our products.”

Now families gather at the W.W. Homestead Dairy ice cream parlor in town. And the dairy makes big sales throughout the region, at places such as nearby colleges.

“Homestead dairy comes in fairly often. It's pretty much the only ice cream that we have on campus now,” said Wayne Tudor, head of food service at Luther College, which serves about 5,000 meals a day on its Decorah campus.

That’s a big piece of the puzzle: connecting farmers to a large area business that wants to buy local food.

“The goal was 35 percent of purchases being local and we hit 36.3 percent (last year),” Tudor said.

Local food seems to be working in northeast Iowa. Sales in the region reached $7 million in 2012. And in the past five years, the local food system has added 50 new jobs to the community, according to a survey of participants. Supporters say it can work in other places, too, potentially creating jobs, supporting rural economies and helping small and mid-sized farms.

Nick McCann, an Iowa State University extension agent, helped create the regional food hub. The first step, he says, is forging relationships among growers, buyers, local governments and other interested groups.

“Once some of that relational infrastructure is developed,” McCann said, “then you can start taking some of these next steps in terms of actually creating the physical distribution infrastructure that we have now.”

Relationships within a community build the system. But McCann says it’s also important to exchange ideas with other places. And he fields plenty of inquiries, especially now that there’s so much interest in local food.

“When you look at all the different projects and all the different organizations that are involved in food system development in Iowa and elsewhere, (it) is growing,” said Craig Chase, program manager for marketing and food systems at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. “In some cases, it seems to be growing exponentially.”

Chase says ultimately that means more people will have access to local food.

“As local food systems become more…conventional, I guess, in some respects, I think you're going to be able to go to a wide variety of markets and have it available to you,” Chase said. 

And more school children are likely to find local foods on their cafeteria trays.

At John Cline Elementary School in Decorah, first-graders carefully carry the tomato soup and broccoli salad made in the high school kitchen to their tables. An AmeriCorps service member weaves through the tables helping the children open packets of saltines. As they finish eating, the children raise their hands to show Megan Woodward that they’ve eaten a variety of foods. Woodward stops by a table where a girl has not touched her broccoli salad.

“You should try it. Just like a teeny, tiny mouse bite,” Woodward says. Cautiously, the girl pokes her fork into the salad. “What’d you think?” Woodward asks after the child tastes it.

“Good,” the girl replies. Woodward peels a sticker off a roll she’s been carrying and gives it to the student. “I tried it!” the sticker says. 

At another table, Kyle Fye sits with his son, Caleb. Fye says he tries to come in for lunch about once a week. He’s found the food is much healthier than he remembers from his own school days and he likes the impact it’s having on his son.

“He’s a lot more adventurous now with what he eats,” Fye said, “so, it’s been good.”

Supporters of the local food system say it’s been good for farmers, for schools, for families and for the overall economy of the region. If it lasts, the people here may find themselves increasingly sharing the lessons they have learned with local food advocates throughout the country.