Coalition proposes radical solution to food insecurity: Iowa farmers

Coalition proposes radical solution to food insecurity: Iowa farmers

A spinach farmer working in the field. Canva photo

By Grace Katzer

July 3, 2024

The Iowa Food System Coalition wants to work with Iowa farmers to convince more of them to switch from commodity farming in an effort to boost farm-to-table food offerings. 

Food insecurity in Iowa has reached staggering numbers, and one organization is asking: What if the call is coming from inside the house?

Iowa, a state with some of the world’s richest soil and the most corn and soybean farmers in the US contributes little fresh, farm-to-table food throughout the state. The Iowa Food System Coalition is working to provide healthy, and fresh foods for all Iowans by diversifying Iowa crops to help “guarantee the availability of nutritious food for Iowans as well as the nation, while ensuring higher incomes for farmers.”

The coalition announced a multi-layered plan on Monday to support farmers and heal Iowa’s complex food system by investing in building blocks, ensuring health and resilience, and empowering Iowans as changemakers. However, leaders recognize it takes legislative action and rallying for food access to make change to Iowa’s food systems. 

Chris Schwartz, executive director of the Iowa Food System Coalition, said there are multiple barriers preventing Iowans from a healthy food system, including natural disasters like the recent Northwest Iowa flood. 

“Agriculture plays a large part in making sure that we have a state that is flood resilient, everything from edge of field practices to … how land is used in general,” Schwartz said. “There’s a lot of things within our food system that relate to what we’re facing right now, and the tragedy in the trauma of going through a flood.”

Sustainable and resilient food systems are in the cards for Iowans, Schwartz said, but it will take investment in Iowa farmers, soil, and overall ecosystem. 

The reality of Iowa food systems

The beauty of Iowa is in its vast farmland. But beyond the acres and acres of summertime greens, a harsh reality lies behind crop production. The truth is a vast majority of crops never make it to dinner plates. 

Out of Iowa’s 30 million acres of land, 23 million acres are dedicated to growing corn and soybeans alone and those crops are primarily used for livestock and ethanol production. Just 12,650 acres in Iowa are dedicated to vegetables, fruit, and berry production. 

Despite its renowned reputation for farmland and production, Iowans are finding it increasingly difficult to eat healthy foods with expensive grocery bills and existing food inequities. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, 40.4% of Iowans consume less than one fruit per day, and 22.7% eat less than one vegetable per day. As of 2022, 89 of Iowa’s 99 counties are considered to have low food access, and one in 13 Iowans are food insecure despite every county having farmland. 

With little fresh and local food coming into Iowa counties, food insecurity results in higher intake of processed foods and insufficient nutrients for children and adults. The coalition wants to increase the number of small farms growing produce and connect growers and buyers to build a locally focused food system. 

“Without this cohesive plan that includes complex elements of Iowa’s food system, it would be nearly impossible to make systemic changes that improve food, access, nutrition, land, health and equity,” Schwartz said.

\Giselle Bruskewitz, senior program director at Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development, emphasized the need for proper food infrastructure throughout the state. This means farmers produce food for businesses and schools, then directly to Iowans’ plates. 

“Once small- and mid-scale businesses can get access to the infrastructure that they need, then they can start to serve their communities in the way that [the communities] need,” Bruskewitz said. “There’s a huge appetite for the farmers to continue to scale up, to continue to grow more, and the people who are receiving the food are so excited about how quality it is and the fact that it came from their neighborhoods.”

Farmers facing expensive land take opportunities out of state

The coalition is also focused on the well-being and future of Iowa farmers. 

Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union and fifth-generation farmer, said farmers are the key to thriving economies. However, young farmers have little opportunity to buy land and succeed for a number of reasons. 

“Every six farmers we have over age 65; we only have one below age 35,” Lehman said. “That is a huge challenge.” 

Land ownership and land access are also difficult to navigate, he added, with the oldest generation of Iowans owning over two-thirds of Iowa farmland, and the average cost per acre in Iowa has increased by 56% in three years.

“We need to invest in those opportunities for a more diverse and younger set of leadership opportunities for people in farming now,” he said. “A healthy food system means that we’re creating paths to farming and food security. No matter your age, no matter your family background, no matter your race, no matter your gender, and no matter your sexual orientation or your family wealth.”

The coalition plans to lobby for legislative action in 2025 to implement healthier food systems for Iowans, benefiting farmers, local businesses and restaurants, and everyday citizens alike.

CATEGORIES: RURAL
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