The smell of baking dinner rolls fills the kitchen at Decorah High School in northeast Iowa. As two kitchen workers mix a fresh broccoli salad, another, Chad Elliott, ladles tomato soup from a large metal pot on the stove into white plastic buckets for delivery to the town’s elementary schools.
Elliott says most of the food served in the district is made from scratch and many ingredients come from local farms and dairies.
“We’re getting local yogurt now, local beef, locally processed pork,” Elliott said. “We can get anything: tomatoes, cabbage, squash, watermelons, cantaloupe.”
He starts working with area farmers well in advance so they can plant with the school market in mind. And now, a regional food hub that acts as a matchmaker between farmers and buyers makes the connection even easier.
“We can call the food hub and they’ll take care of it for us,” Elliott said, “so it’s really easy to get ahold of locally grown stuff now.”
From the launch of the local food effort in northeast Iowa nine years ago, producers have worked alongside buyers to push for a robust system that integrates local food into everyday life. It takes a lot of work from many different partners to establish and maintain a local food system, but the six-county region in rural Iowa has brought together producers, consumers, schools, businesses and area non-profits to create a strong one that may ultimately serve as a model for other communities.
Though the number of farmers markets has exploded in the past decade, increasingly farmers are finding that larger sales to intermediaries—such as schools and colleges—makes for a more viable local business plan. Food hubs can play an important role and the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that over 260 are now in operation across the country, a 65 percent increase since 2009.
In 2008, when local food sales reached nearly $5 billion, USDA found that farms using intermediated markets made more per capita on local sales than farms selling directly to consumers. So while farmers markets, farm stands and community supported agriculture sales work well for many farmers and consumers, the key to a sustainable local food initiative is a community-wide system of partners.
One of the farmers dialed in to the local food system is Tom Weighner, whose dairy farm is about seven miles outside of Waukon, Iowa, in a region of rolling hills. He jokes that his cows have the best view of any in Iowa.
It was his children who led Weighner into the local food movement. He has four daughters and they all hope to continue in the family business. But as that business stood five years ago, he knew it couldn’t support them all.
“We actually were spurred into action in 2009,” Weighner said, “when we had historic low milk prices for basically the whole year.”
To sustain the next generation, Weighner knew his business needed to grow. One option was to build more barns and buy more cows. But he and his business partners decided to branch out instead. They bought an empty building in Waukon, turned it into a creamery and now they produce the ready-to-eat dairy that people want, like butter, ice cream and cheese curds.
“By maintaining ownership of the product right to a retail product,” Weighner said, “we thought it would give us more control over the price of our products.”
Now families gather at the W.W. Homestead Dairy ice cream parlor in town. And the dairy makes big sales throughout the region, at places such as nearby colleges.
“Homestead dairy comes in fairly often. It's pretty much the only ice cream that we have on campus now,” said Wayne Tudor, head of food service at Luther College, which serves about 5,000 meals a day on its Decorah campus.
That’s a big piece of the puzzle: connecting farmers to a large area business that wants to buy local food.
“The goal was 35 percent of purchases being local and we hit 36.3 percent (last year),” Tudor said.
Local food seems to be working in northeast Iowa. Sales in the region reached $7 million in 2012. And in the past five years, the local food system has added 50 new jobs to the community, according to a survey of participants. Supporters say it can work in other places, too, potentially creating jobs, supporting rural economies and helping small and mid-sized farms.
Nick McCann, an Iowa State University extension agent, helped create the regional food hub. The first step, he says, is forging relationships among growers, buyers, local governments and other interested groups.
“Once some of that relational infrastructure is developed,” McCann said, “then you can start taking some of these next steps in terms of actually creating the physical distribution infrastructure that we have now.”
Relationships within a community build the system. But McCann says it’s also important to exchange ideas with other places. And he fields plenty of inquiries, especially now that there’s so much interest in local food.
“When you look at all the different projects and all the different organizations that are involved in food system development in Iowa and elsewhere, (it) is growing,” said Craig Chase, program manager for marketing and food systems at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. “In some cases, it seems to be growing exponentially.”
Chase says ultimately that means more people will have access to local food.
“As local food systems become more…conventional, I guess, in some respects, I think you're going to be able to go to a wide variety of markets and have it available to you,” Chase said.
And more school children are likely to find local foods on their cafeteria trays.
At John Cline Elementary School in Decorah, first-graders carefully carry the tomato soup and broccoli salad made in the high school kitchen to their tables. An AmeriCorps service member weaves through the tables helping the children open packets of saltines. As they finish eating, the children raise their hands to show Megan Woodward that they’ve eaten a variety of foods. Woodward stops by a table where a girl has not touched her broccoli salad.
“You should try it. Just like a teeny, tiny mouse bite,” Woodward says. Cautiously, the girl pokes her fork into the salad. “What’d you think?” Woodward asks after the child tastes it.
“Good,” the girl replies. Woodward peels a sticker off a roll she’s been carrying and gives it to the student. “I tried it!” the sticker says.
At another table, Kyle Fye sits with his son, Caleb. Fye says he tries to come in for lunch about once a week. He’s found the food is much healthier than he remembers from his own school days and he likes the impact it’s having on his son.
“He’s a lot more adventurous now with what he eats,” Fye said, “so, it’s been good.”
Supporters of the local food system say it’s been good for farmers, for schools, for families and for the overall economy of the region. If it lasts, the people here may find themselves increasingly sharing the lessons they have learned with local food advocates throughout the country.
More from this series: The Local Food Challenge