Strengthening Iowa’s Food System

This week, on Friday, November 16th, the Iowa Food Systems Council (IFSC) is partnering with the Iowa Public Health Association (IPHA), Iowa League of RC&D’s, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Valley Continuing Education, Iowa Primary Association, and the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition to host the 2012 Healthy Farms, Healthy People State Meeting.  The meeting is open to the public, and one may learn more about the event by visiting the IPHA’s website.  Registration is still available at the door.  The Healthy Farms, Healthy People State Meeting will bring together stakeholders representing the sectors of public health, food, farming, and health care.  This meeting will be the first of its kind in Iowa, convening a broad array of participants from throughout the region, all of whom are working towards creating a more resilient food system in Iowa.  The IFSC recognizes that the food system is comprised of an innumerable amount of actors that produce, process, distribute, and dispose of what we eat.  As a result, no single voice encaptures the entire food system.  Yet, the IFSC is especially adept at convening a forum for progressive discussion.  With a mission to recommend policy, research, and program options for an Iowa food system which supports healthier Iowans, communities, economies, and the environment, the IFSC is positioned to lead Iowa towards a more resilient food system.

As noted, a primary challenge in developing a sustainable, and therefore resilient, food system is that there are so many actors within the food system itself.  Food policy councils (FPCs) attempt to bring together these various actors, implementing changes that greatly affect how we produce, transport, and even eat our food.  FPCs, including the IFSC, are comprised of community citizens, government officials, and other stakeholders that bring change to the food system.  Planners, too, play an important role in leading FPCs.  According to the American Planning Association, some of the many unique skills that planners bring to the food policy table include “crafting policy language, conducting land inventories, or conveying information through geographic information system (GIS) maps” (Food System Planning Briefing Paper 2011).

This past summer, economist Ken Meter led an analysis of the Des Moines region’s food system.  This region consists of Dallas, Jasper, Madison, Marion, Polk, Story, and Warren Counties.  According to Meter, the Des Moines region includes nearly 7,000 farms; however, due to a combination of farmers purchasing inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) from outside the region, and consumers buying products sourced from even further distances, the Des Moines region loses approximately $1.9 billion of potential wealth each year.  Not only is the Des Moines region losing potential income, it is also losing valuable farmland as the suburban fringes continue to expand.  To address both the economic and land-use concerns of the Des Moines region’s food system, an organization is needed to provide leadership in building a stronger regional food infrastructure.

Along with the IFSC, there are a handful of county and region-wide FPCs in the state of Iowa, including a pair of newly formed FPCs that address the needs of the Iowa River corridor (including Iowa City and Cedar Rapids).  Yet, there remains a need for an FPC that represents the Des Moines metro area.  A Des Moines regional FPC would convene stakeholders from the many existing organizations in the metropolitan area that address food system issues, resulting in a more efficient effort to develop a regional food economy, addressing issues such as increasing access to healthier foods for all, and promoting land-use practices that preserve existing farmland.  In developing The Tomorrow Plan, the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has worked with a wide array of stakeholders, including community citizens and public officials.  This effort has placed the MPO in a position of leadership in moving towards a more sustainable food system for the greater Des Moines region.  The time is now to address central Iowa’s food system, where the majority of Iowa’s population and urban infrastructure lies.

The 2012 Healthy Farms, Healthy People State Meeting will be another first in strengthening Iowa’s food system.  Change, however, must continue at multiple levels throughout the state.  The MPO, along with resource and capacity assistance from the IFSC and other food and farming organizations, is in a valuable position to help lead this change.

John DeanOriginally from Washington State, John Dean is earning a dual Master degree in both Community and Regional Planning and Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. John’s masters thesis focused on food policy councils, and specifically the original Iowa Food Policy Council. Today, John serves as Secretary for the Board of Directors of the Iowa Food Systems Council.
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