Guest Columnist

Local food is a community investment

A farm in rural Grinnell. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A farm in rural Grinnell. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

What if every Linn County resident spent 10 percent of their food dollars on local foods? What would that do for our economy, our farmers, our food entrepreneurs and our communities?

According to Field to Family, a food hub located in Johnson County, if each individual in the region spends 10 percent of their food dollars on local food, the regional economy gains $83 million per year. But, how can we do that when we import 90 percent of our food to Iowa, beginning farmers can’t access affordable land, there are no processing facilities in Linn County, and only 312 of the 324,507 acres that are in agriculture production in Linn County are for fruits and vegetables? (Data provided in the Linn County Food Systems Assessment.)

It’s time to bring new life and energy into our food system and the Linn County Food Systems Council (LCFSC) is working to do just that. The LCFSC was created in 2012 to advise the Board of Supervisors on policies and programs with the objective of making Linn County’s food system economically, environmentally and socially resilient.

The LCFSC has ambitious goals to improve Linn County’s food system from production to consumption. This includes increasing access to and consumption of nutritious foods by boosting the volume and diversity of food produced within the county and creating equitable access to healthy, local food. The first step toward accomplishing this goal is the completion of a comprehensive baseline Linn County food system assessment, which is a study that looks at the complex web of interactions in the food system of a community - from production to consumption to disposal.

The Linn County Food Systems Council initiated a food system assessment to better understand our food system, hear from those working and living in it, and understand how we can improve and build on our current infrastructure. With financial help from a matching Wellmark grant, the LCFSC used a competitive bidding process to select New Venture Advisors as the firm to complete the assessment. New Venture Advisors (NVA) is a consulting firm that specializes in food system planning and infrastructure development.

With help from NVA, the council spent the last year conducting the assessment. We focused on four factors foundational to food system development: production, procurement, processing, and barriers to entry and expansion of businesses working within the food system. NVA held two series of interviews for key stakeholders and sent surveys out to three different stakeholder groups: growers, buyers, and food businesses. They also used secondary research that accessed public and syndicated data to create an overview of the local, regional, and statewide food systems. After synthesizing interview notes and survey responses, NVA put together the baseline of our food system and six key recommendations to help build capacity in our food system and serve as an economic driver that increases food access, catalyzes community engagement, and strengthens community connections.

For the next step, the LCFSC will create an action plan based on the recommendations in the assessment. This will include strengthening existing and creating new partnerships and collaboration with other governments and nonprofits, educating buyers on the benefits of buying locally produced food and how to buy local, and investing in the local food system.

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Linn County is in a unique position of being an urban county in a rural state. As residents of Linn County, we have the power to support and drive a vibrant and diverse farm community in Eastern Iowa and empower more Iowa farmers to innovate, opening up new markets. Producers indicated on the survey that they are interested in increasing their production if markets are available. Consumers drive demand and demand drives change. By supporting local food producers and growers, we can build resilient supply chains that feed the community and stimulate economic development. How can you help? Make a conscience effort to buy 10 percent of your fruits and vegetables from local growers, either direct through a Linn County CSA (community supported agriculture), in-person farmers market, online farmers market, food hub or when making selections at your local grocery. And if your local grocery store doesn’t carry local produce ask them why not?

Together, let’s create a food system that is economically, environmentally and socially resilient.

For more information and to view the assessment, please visit our website, www.LinnCounty.org/FoodSystemsCouncil.

Laura Seyfer and August Stolba are co-chairs of the Linn County Food Systems Council.

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