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In Iowa, Local Food Systems Mean Economic Development

In Northeast Iowa, Farmer Vince Spain shows kids the seeds he uses to grow produce for their cafeteria. Farm-to-school programs can increase healthy food access while teaching young people about agriculture. The state of Iowa is already an agricultural powerhouse, but new local and regional food efforts are making it even more so. These efforts are also increasing Iowans' access to fresh, healthy, locally-grown food. Here are three examples:

In northeast Iowa, local farmers, agri-business owners, Main Street businesses, community development specialists and consumers first gathered in 2007 to discuss how they could build a healthier and more economically vibrant community. They established the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, which quickly expanded to six counties with more than 100 producer members and 50 others working together.

Thanks to their efforts, sales of local food by farmers in northeast Iowa have risen from less than $10,000 in 2006 to over $2 million by 2010. The groups estimate that the increase has brought 26 new jobs to the region as workers are hired to farm, process products, manage farm marketing, and do other tasks. By 2010, 21 farms were selling to local schools and 11 new farms had begun selling into the regional market. The group applied for and received a Rural Business Enterprise Grant from USDA Rural Development in 2011, providing resources to expand this work.

Statewide, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) reported 228 farmers' markets across the state in 2010, an increase of more than 40 from two years earlier. An estimated 99,000 Iowa consumers and 1,500 producers participate in the markets. IDALS also conducted a study in 2010 showing that an estimated $59.4 million in direct and indirect sales, an additional $12.2 million in personal income, 374 direct jobs and more than 200 indirect jobs had been created as a result of the activities of farmers' markets in Iowa.

Despite the growth of farmers' markets, demand for local food in Iowa still outpaces production. "We actually have a waiting list for communities that would like to start farmers' markets, as well as area schools, restaurants and institutions that would like to purchase more foods from local sources," says Bahia Nightengale, local food coordinator for the Southwest Iowa Food and Farm Initiative. A recent studyThis is an external link or third-party site outside of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website. from Iowa State University showed that 10 southwest Iowa counties could generate $2.67 million in wages, an equivalent to 45 additional jobs, by increasing fruit and vegetable production to meet local demand during a typical Iowa growing season.

"USDA Rural Development is very interested in supporting the exciting local foods initiatives that are surfacing across Iowa using our loan and grant programs," says Bill Menner, Rural Development's State Director in Iowa. "People want to know where their food is coming from and are requesting locally grown foods. They also recognize the importance of supporting local producers and local economies."