Food Hub board members gather at the Seed Center garden of the Sustainable Living Coalition.
Local food for local communities. That’s the premise behind the Fairfield-based Southeast Iowa Food Hub, which dovetails perfectly into the national trend of establishing regional networks of growers to provide wholesome, cleanly grown and produced food to the local population.
A hundred years ago, 90 to 95 percent of our food was raised locally in Iowa. Our state was a major producer of apples. Over time, it became much more convenient to buy food from California, partially because of the infrastructure set up to support it. The Southeast Iowa Food Hub provides an avenue to build a new infrastructure to support local, sustainable agriculture and land stewardship.
The Value of Food Self-Reliance
Given current climate changes, local food production needs to happen. Long-term drought is already affecting California’s ability to grow food. “It is in our best interest to become more self-sufficient,” says Food Hub board member Bob Ferguson. “One hundred years ago, we fed ourselves. We can do it now.”
The Food Hub aims to develop a healthy local food system for present and future generations. Part of this includes educating both consumers and farmers on why sustainable, local food makes sense and is worth the price. Success depends on changing consumer’s focus from what appears to be cheapest to what’s best for the local farmers, health of consumers, and a vibrant, local economy.
“We work with a group of many small, regional farms,” say Food Hub executive director Barbara Stone. “It’s a challenge to compete with the California market in terms of price. We have to educate not just the consumer who buys the food but also the produce buyers who purchase for the wholesale and retail market on the importance of supporting local food.”
The Food Hub sells produce to institutions, restaurants, and grocery stores, and CSA membership is available for individuals. The Food Hub has been getting great support from local patrons and looks forward to further expansion and collaboration. Current buyers include Jefferson County Hospital, Fairfield Golf and Country Club, Everybody’s Whole Foods, Hy-Vee, MUM, and a majority of Fairfield restaurants. Everybody’s and the Fairfield Farmer’s Market have also graciously allowed distribution of produce for Food Hub CSA members.
“We’re constantly seeking new ways to partner with others and generate income to expand organic production in our region,” says Stone.
“Collaboration is so critical to what we can accomplish,” adds Ferguson. “The Southeast Iowa Food Hub is really an expression of how to pursue robust economic development on the basis of sustainable principles.”
The SE Iowa Food Hub is governed by a board from the Sustainable Living Coalition, and includes Barbara Stone, Bob Ferguson, Stuart Valentine, Ken Walton, Jessie Nichols, Faith Reeves, Joel and Joy Hirshberg, Ken Ross, Monica Hadley, Dean Goodale, Dr. David Fisher, Dr. Appachanda Thimmaiah, Roger Vorhies, Dee Sandquist, and Steve Heaton.
Plans for Expansion
The Food Hub will eventually serve 13 counties. All growers and producers represented by the Food Hub maintain organic-level standards, though not all of them are certified organic. All farms and production facilities are visited to ensure they meet or exceed organic standards. “As we create a local food system,” says Stone, “we want to pay special attention to the practices of the farmers we work with. We’re very conscious of working with people who go even beyond organic standards.”
Ferguson adds, “It’s really about conscious practices. What effect are we creating in the environment? We want to be producing food in the most ethical, humane way, so it serves the health and happiness of the people.”
Right now, the Food Hub primarily matches farmers with buyers interested in their produce. There are plans to add products like salsa, for example, that make use of farm excesses during peak season. Stone says they are working with growers who are considering growing commodities like black beans and other legumes, and grains that can be adapted to our climate. They are also expanding to poultry, meat, and dairy production. They are looking into grants to support the Food Hub as well as to establish production facilities and expand greenhouse facilities throughout Jefferson County. One of the long-range plans is to create an institute that supports farmers in switching from conventional to organic.
For more information, visit Southeast Iowa Food Hub.