CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Those able to distinguish Iowa from Idaho and Ohio on a map are likely to be aware of Iowa’s reputation for farming. Located in the heartland of the U.S. with 30.7 million acres of farmland, its status as one of the greatest agricultural states in the country, and the greatest producer of soybeans and corn in particular, warrants such a reputation.
However, the average person may be unaware that the majority of crops farmed in Iowa don’t end up directly on the dinner table. Instead, their fate awaits in the food troughs of the millions of Iowa livestock, including the 20.6 million hogs raised in Iowa. Otherwise, crops are shipped off to factories and processed into starches, oil, sweeteners and ethanol.
Iowa sweet corn is celebrated across the state and is quite literally the basis for countless festivals in Iowa, including the Indian Creek Corn Boil, the BBQ Chicken and Sweet Corn Feed and several Sweet Corn Festivals. According to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, Iowa harvested 3,548 acres of sweet corn of the 13.1 million acres devoted to corn production.
Since the Cattle Feeding Industry first turned to grain corn in the 1950s, much of Iowa’s 1,000 varieties of soil have been turned over for the production of livestock-grade produce. Subsequently, Iowans began receiving the majority of their corn intake like the rest of Americans—through the thousands of products that list corn as one of their many ingredients.
Dying Towns, Greater Need for Local Food
Across the state, growing interest in local food has ushered in the development of farmers’ markets in both rural and metropolitan areas. Although some of the national attention on local food may focus on its nutritional and environmental merits, many Iowa communities have turned towards farmers’ markets out of necessity.
While agribusiness may be booming in Iowa, the small towns that constitute the fabric of the state’s history and culture are dying. Of the nearly 700 villages, towns, and cities which comprise Iowa, 90% of them have population less than 6,000. More than half of the towns have populations under 1,000.
Many of these communities have to rely on each other in order to keep their farms tilled, restaurants open and their community alive.
One such example is Swea City, a small town located in Northwest Iowa that harbors a dwindling population of approximately 600 residents. When the town’s last grocery store closed in 2008, a local farming couple decided to fill the grocer’s void and sell their farm produce in the town’s park.
Many of the elderly unable to farm themselves depend on their presence for access to local produce. During the winter, they must make their way to the nearest grocery store; a small one is 10 miles down the road while the nearest large-scale one is at least 30 miles away.
Urban Farming, a Beginner’s Course
For Iowans, procuring fresh produce from small local vendors might not be as difficult for those not living in an agricultural state, but residents still have to know where to look, when to look and have a fundamental understanding of back roads (gravel, dirt, etc.) to get there.
Such obscure and out of the way locations make it difficult for both city dwellers and even rural residents to purchase local food on a consistent basis. However, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second largest city with approximately 128,000 residents, a new movement encouraging local foods has made it easier to access healthy foods.
Since 2006, Cedar Rapids has held a downtown farmers’ market that holds more than 220 vendors. The market runs June through September and is open every other Saturday. In 2012 the city opened a year-round market in the New Bohemia District, a historical area whose namesake refers to the great number of Czech immigrants who made Cedar Rapids their home in the late 1800s.
Other cities that have opened up farmers’ markets in the past ten years include Detroit, infamously labeled a ‘food desert’; or an area “vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods,” according to the American Nutrition Association. This labeling can possibly be attributed to the white flight that occurred in the late 60’s and 70’s. Along with much of the white population, so too went many of the grocery stores in the Detroit metropolitan area.
In order to improve food security, organizations like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network have dedicated much of their resources to the local urban agricultural movement, including using old city lots for small community gardens.
Like Detroit, Cedar Rapids has created a year-round option for people looking for local foods, including a learning garden center and cooking classes provided by a local community college.
The Global Sustainable Table
Physically, the New Bo Market is an 18,000 square foot building holding 18 different vendors selling everything from local meats to homemade pastas. Ideologically, the building and the area it serves is a microcosm of a growing international movement to increase food security in some of the greatest food-poor locations around the world.
During the 1960s and 1970s, strategists combated world hunger with increased food production and food deployment to famine-ravaged areas like Ethiopia. As was the case then and is now, sending in vast amounts of food to famished populations may stem the problem but does little to combat its roots.
Even when large supplies can be procured, their effects on the recipients’ markets can debilitate recovery.
Famished populations may be in close proximity to neighboring countries and even areas within the same country that aren’t stricken with food shortages, poor infrastructures leave improving domestic agricultural markets as the most viable solution.
Countries and organizations have responded accordingly, including the international community’s support of the large-scale Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program. In particular, Ethiopia has committed itself to alleviating its food security problems by realizing sustainable food security results.
Desire for food security can be seen amongst indigenous populations and peasants from Belgium to Brazil. The grassroots organization la Via Campesina supports small-scale farmers by voicing their concerns for food sovereignty in global agricultural debates.
Whether in Iowa or Africa, efforts both large and small represent growing international solidarity in reducing food scarcity and provide a more direct path from the farm to the table.
– Emily Bajet
Sources: National Corn Growers Association, Iowa Farm Burearu, Iowa Corn FAQ, Sojos, Iowa Department of Agriculture, IA GenWeb Project, American Nutrition Association, TIME, Detroit Black Food Security Network, Certified Angus Beef Partners
Photo: Photography Free 4 All