Spicing Up Systemic Change

Writer: Brianne Sanchez

What does it take to go from being a food consumer to becoming a food citizen?”

That was the question the urban farmer April Clark asked a group of about 60 guests who’d gathered for a free community meal hosted by Cultivate, a Des Moines-based nonprofit that focuses on growing local food connections. The question provided some food for thought, something to chew on with the potato dumplings and locally sourced cabbage salad during the Cultivate Your Plate event this past summer.

Cultivate is one of dozens of partners in the Iowa Food System Coalition, which works to improve Iowa’s food landscape. The coalition recently launched a comprehensive plan, called “Setting the Table for All Iowans,” which identifies priorities to create a thriving, sustainable and equitable food system. Although the group built on earlier work, much has changed since the last statewide plan was released in 2011.

“The issues around social and racial equity and climate change are two factors that are shaping the conversation in a new way,” said Jan Libbey, the coalition’s coordinator. The new plan “stimulates imagination, it builds capacity, it informs policymakers and organizes shared measures for greater impact.”

Libbey has more than 25 years of experience in sustainable farming and worked with a vast network to outline the new collective vision. Fellow farmers, nonprofit leaders, government officials and educators all provided input. Their plan calls for coordinated efforts around food policy, infrastructure and access that promote both economic and ecological vibrancy. Events like the Cultivate dinner incorporate elements of the plan and boil down some of the food system’s complexity through personal stories about what it means to buy local.

“If people like you aren’t purchasing from people like me, the food system will go away,” said Jason Jones of Star Grass Farm, whose greens were part of the August dinner.

Jones was one of several presenters who hosted roundtable conversations about their farms before the meal. Others shared practical tips for straw bale gardening and talked about policies that provide producers a steady income. Monika Owczarski, for example, uses funding from the Iowa Local Food Purchasing Assistance Program (LFPA) to distribute food grown at Sweet Tooth Farm. She stocks the produce in community fridges to help her neighbors in need and ease her own storage shortage.

LFPA “has lifted so many small farms,” Owczarski told the Cultivate crowd. “But like everything in farming, it’s precarious.”

The Iowa Food System Coalition’s plan calls for the expansion of both LFPA and the Iowa Local Food for Schools Program, which helps put Iowa-grown produce in K-12 school cafeterias. Both programs improve supply-chain resilience through partnerships with local producers, food hubs and distributors like food banks and school districts.

Artfully plated dishes like the ones a chef prepared for Cultivate are one strategy that makes the plan digestible for the public. The coalition hopes to engage partners across the state in a broader series of events to celebrate the plan’s launch.

As Libbey put it, “There are some innovative ideas coming out of the plan that are going to help move the food system forward.”

Iowa Stops Hunger is an ongoing Business Publications Corp. initiative to raise awareness about food insecurity in Iowa and inspire action to combat it.

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