Iowa Public Television


Northeast Iowa Local Food Project

posted on March 7, 2003

The controversies over where and how our food is raised have added momentum to a movement in parts of the country to "buy local".

The "buy local" movement has grown from the once novel "pick-your-own" berry and pumpkin fields to farmers markets. In more recent times, grocery stores stock and promote area grown produce. And as Nancy Crowfoot reports, a project in northeast Iowa is making inroads at encouraging local restaurants, universities, and institutions like nursing homes to buy their meat and produce from local farmers.


Northeast Iowa Local Food Project

In one northeast Iowa county, residents spend about 300 (M) million dollars a year on groceries and dining out. The dollar figures are neither unusual nor outstanding on any sort of national scale of per capita spending. But what may be unusual is an effort by some to keep more of the food dollars spent, at home.

And so far, in a 4-year time period (1998-2001) nine institutions and restaurants have spent nearly $600,000 on locally produced food. Much of the sales effort was done basically, one cow at a time.

Robin Gaines, Bartels Lutheran Retirement Community, Director of Nutrition Services: "We buy probably two to three whole beef a month. We buy it from the locker here locally."

Barry Eastman, Owner, Rudy's Taco, Waterloo, Iowa: "I go through 200 pounds of tomatoes a week. I was juggling with a few farmers."

Barry Eastman who runs a Mexican restaurant … and Robin Gaines, who is the Director of Nutrition Services for a 200-resident retirement community … were both "jump-started" into local food purchasing by the University of Northern Iowa's Local Food Project. It was a project started six years ago with a goal to capture food dollars that were leaving the community.

Kamyar Enshayan, Director, University of Northern Iowa Local Food Project: "We started it mostly because we wanted to capture a larger portion of the food dollars and invest them locally on local farms and local processing facilities."

Kamyar Enshayan has been a market match-maker: Finding institutions willing to buy local meat and produce … and matching them up with individual farmers and processors who can fill the order.

Rudy's Taco's entered the "buy local" campaign six years ago, when owner Barry Eastman was trying to find free-range chicken. The Local Food Project referred him to a source.

Barry Eastman, Rudy's Tacos: "And I called the farmer and he brought down a couple of chickens one day. And I threw a couple on the stove and cooked them up and it just blew me away. The taste, I couldn't believe the difference. And it just really opened my eyes and then once that happened I just went through my whole menu and I was like, ‘what else can I get locally or fresh?'"

What else can he buy locally? In addition to chickens from Lansing, Iowa … he buys locally-raised beef and pork within a two county area which is processed at a locker in Gilbertville. He buys fresh tomatoes and hot peppers from farmers in Hudson and Center Point … and in winter, hydroponic tomatoes, from St. Ansgar. His garlic comes from Cedar Falls … black beans from Brandon … and cheese from a creamery just across the Iowa border in Darlington, Wisconsin. All totaled … Eastman now purchases 71% of his restaurant's food from about a dozen area and regional farmers. In the ledger book, that amounts to $140,000 of his $200,000 annual food bill—money that stays within 115 miles of home.

At Bartels Lutheran Retirement Community, which feeds 200 residents a day … the food director this year will spend some $33,000 on just Bremer County beef and pork. Another $23-hundred dollars is also spent on seasonal produce from local farmers. Purchases are determined from a list of products … with prices and farmers phone numbers … faxed to her every Monday by the Local Food Project.

Robin Gaines, Bartels Lutheran Retirement Community, Director of Nutrition Services: "It was much easier for us than having to do it ourselves. I don't know that we would have ever been able to do that ourselves because it's incredible how many farmers in Bremer County, Blackhawk County who grow produce and people don't know it."

Two of those once "anonymous" farmers are Steve and Jean Moseley. When the couple quit farrowing hogs about four years ago, they started growing produce for the Farmers Market circuit. Their marketing direction expanded – with the help of the Local Food Project – to include selling directly to institutions and restaurants. Today, about thirty percent of their produce sales are delivered to businesses.

The Moseleys say it is an arrangement with some advantages over relying solely upon Farmers Markets.

Steve Moseley, Hudson, Iowa: "But you know you have a sale when you go to the trouble of preparing your vegetables and the time or whatever."

Jean Moseley, Hudson, Iowa: "We actually feel that we get to know the people that we deliver to and that they, in some way, care about us too. And that they're willing to maybe pay just a little bit more."

The price is negotiated between grower and buyer … which the Moseleys say, is somewhere between the wholesale and the retail price.

It is an arrangement that works for them … and one the Local Food Project points to as a success story for the farmer, the restaurant and the local community.

Kamyar Enshaydan, University of Northern Iowa Local Food Project: "We figured that for every dollar that we received to do this project we made six and a half dollars stay in our community, in our region."

Enshaydan would like to see his project become a permanent fixture in the community. The project has operated on grant money since 1997. The money from various sources runs through 2003.

Its enough to get him started on his next campaign: To publish a directory of area farmers and processors who sell direct to consumers … and to ask each resident to spend ten dollars a week of their grocery bill on locally produced food.

He is confident the request of consumers will work. After all it has worked on a much larger scale … both in dollars spent and the beliefs behind it.

Robin Gaines, Bartels Lutheran Retirement Community: "We have farmers here that are retired who live here. We have farm families who have mothers and fathers living here so they've contributed to us by allowing us to take care of their parents, their husbands, their wives and so we needed to be able to give something back to the community, back to the state. This is one way we can do it."

For Market to Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


Tags: agriculture food groceries Iowa local food news