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Opinion: Rebuild it and they will come: reviving Iowa's local food system
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Opinion: Rebuild it and they will come: reviving Iowa's local food system

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Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmer's Union

Iowa needs to think big on local foods – for the health of our children and economy. 

Recently, the Local Foods, Healthy Kids initiative was launched to promote recommendations that get more locally-sourced, healthy foods into the hands of Iowa’s youngest children and grow our local foods industry. The emerging market for locally-sourced food, which includes child care providers and schools represents a great opportunity for Iowa’s farmers.

Iowa was once a leading producer of apples, grapes, sweet corn, melons, potatoes and many other fruits and vegetables. A century ago, Iowa led the world in canned sweet corn with 58 canneries. Today, Iowa has no processing and packaging facilities for horticulture crops and minimal transportation and storage operations for a local foods system.

Yet, fresh fruits and vegetables are crucial for a healthy diet and locally produced food is fresher, tastes better, and contains more nutrients than food grown thousands of miles away. Good nutrition improves a child’s ability to learn. Access to locally-sourced fruits and vegetables support a child’s understanding of farming and the impact of food choices on health, and work to create lifelong preferences for healthier foods.

We also know Iowa’s agricultural industry lacks diversity. The average age of an Iowa farmer is nearly 60 and 94% of our cropland is planted in corn and soybeans. But, there is an increasing interest in younger generations to reconnect with the land, how our food is produced, and a desire to produce fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and dairy for local consumers.

It is time for Iowa to connect these dots and grow our local foods industry and address the lack of access to, and consumption of healthy foods by our children and all Iowans.

That is why the Iowa Farmers Union, the Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children and Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative partnered, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, to launch the initiative. The recommendations respond to a statewide study of stakeholders, led by the State Public Policy Group, which finds that the local foods system is fragmented and public investment in the needed infrastructure for our local foods system is minimal.

Farmers markets are a wonderful addition to our communities, but alone cannot sustain a vibrant horticulture industry or grow our locally produced meat, poultry and dairy businesses. To reach a scale that will support transitioning more of our farmland to horticulture crops, we must build the infrastructure needed to sustain a local foods industry. It can be done because we have done it before.

Iowa will always be a world-leading producer of corn soybeans, hogs, poultry and cattle, but our research has shown there is a growing demand for a safe, reliable, and healthy local foods system. That has been reinforced by the negative impact of COVID-19 on the safety and reliability of our food supply. 

This is our, “If you build it, they will come” moment.

Iowa policymakers should support this effort and provide the leadership needed for success. We must capitalize on the opportunity to grow our local farm economy while improving the health and well-being of all Iowans with healthy locally produced food.

Aaron Lehman is president of the Iowa Farmer's Union. Krista Smith is a consultant for Iowa Farm to Early Care and Education. Haleisa Johnson is coordinator of Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Early Childhood.

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