Local Foods Connection: CSA Gets Produce to Families in Need

Seven years ago, Laura Dowd was at a crossroads. She believed fervently in local sustainable agriculture, but money was tight, and like so many people she thought that “the good stuff” was expensive and unattainable. Her desire to eat healthily and support local family farms brought her to volunteer with Susan Jutz and Simone Delaty of Local Harvest, a community supported agriculture (CSA) system in Johnson County.

A CSA is a little like a magazine subscription for farm fresh food. Participants buy a “share” in the early spring, paying up front for food they will receive throughout the season. In this perfect win-win scenario, the farmers get the cash they need to get the season started well, and the families who join get a box of fresh, seasonal produce each week, all season long. Here in Iowa, that is around 20 weeks of radishes, greens, sweet peas, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, and much more. Local Harvest also offers hearth-baked bread, fresh cut flowers, lamb, pork, and eggs. Everything they offer is organic.

Helping Single-parent Households

Soon the three of them were discussing the challenges involved in putting local, organic food within reach of single-parent households and others who are economically disadvantaged. From these discussions, Local Foods Connection (LFC) was born. Originally called “Adopt-a-Family,” the idea was to solicit donations from CSA members and the general public, and that this money would be used to buy CSA shares for qualifying families. Families and farmers both get the support they need.

More Than Charity

Though by no means easy, the work of the last seven years has paid off for LFC and for the people Dowd affectionately calls “my families.” Today LFC is a lot more than a charity that raises money and hands out food. Its more than 50 volunteers do clerical and educational work, and work with 10 different area farms. Rather than paying these hardworking helpers (and 40 more from the University of Iowa service fraternity Alpha Kappa Psi), eight CSAs give credit toward food purchases, which LFC distributes to its clients—and that is only the beginning. LFC educates families about cooking, nutrition, and the advantages of buying locally.

Recently, New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City sent dividend checks to its members, and accompanying each check was a request that the members sign these checks over to LFC. The response was so overwhelming that an extremely grateful Ms. Dowd says, “It will change the charity.”

Connecting with the Farm

Amadou Ouedraogo and his wife Jeannette emigrated from the West African country of Burkina Faso in 2000. With Amadou in graduate school at the University of Iowa and three boys to feed, Jeannette’s hard work as a nursing assistant wasn’t enough. With the help of Dana Ballantyne at the Crisis Center, the Ouedraogos met Laura Dowd and learned of the Local Foods Connection program.

The family loved the food, and Amadou appreciated help learning about American vegetables (he liked the zucchini, but not the beets, both of which were new to him).  They also particularly enjoyed visiting Susan Jutz’s ZJ Farm. These visits are required of all participating families, and Dowd says that it is sometimes difficult to get the families to go to the farms, but once there, it is even tougher to get them to leave. Amadou enjoyed the visit so much he returned twice with friends, even held a cookout there, and says he looks forward to returning soon.

Working with LFC has taught Amadou the importance of buying locally, and he now shops farmers’ markets and the Kalona auction house regularly. He’s learned that buying locally is a far less expensive, and far more nutritious, way of obtaining quality food than the heavily shipped and fertilized food in the grocery stores. LFC educates its families, volunteers, and donors that the shelf price of food should not be a primary factor in deciding whether or not to purchase it.

Ouedraogo and Jutz have formed a bond, and Dowd feels it is important to emphasize the hard work that creates this food. This bond between the farmer and the urban dweller also helps slow urban sprawl.

Sharing the Bounty

From its humble beginnings as a dream shared by Dowd, Jutz, and Delaty, LFC has grown to include 18 families and 10 farms, including not just Local Harvest CSA, but also Choice Earth, Gooseberry Hill, Oak Hill Acres, Scattergood Farms, Friendly Farms, Fae Ridge Farms, Wallace Farms, and Ecoville. Chickens are supplied by Calvin & Jody Yoder of Echo Dell in Kalona, and each family receives a Slow Food Ark-registered heritage turkey for Thanksgiving from Henry and Ida Miller, also of Kalona. An independent four-person Board of Directors makes sure everything runs smoothly.

Most of the families are single parent, and are directed to the charity by the Crisis Center, the Shelter House, Goodwill, United Action for Youth, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and the Women’s Resource and Action Council, all amazing and hard-working charities in their own right.

Dowd looks forward to being able to help even more families discover the value and nutrition of fresh, local food.