As Food Corps 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.”
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 Food Corps 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 Food Corps 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 Food Corps 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.
Check out the whole series: The Local Food Challenge.