Fresh Fight

Woodbury County, Iowa, isn't the first place you'd expect people to worry about where their food comes from. The county, which includes Sioux City and...
March 31, 2008

Woodbury County, Iowa, isn't the first place you'd expect people to worry about where their food comes from. The county, which includes Sioux City and its surroundings, boasts some of the most fertile farmland in the United States. And Iowa as a whole leads the nation in the production of pork, corn and eggs, and ranks second in soybeans and beef. Yet two years ago, Woodbury became the first county to mandate that food purchased by the county -- for consumption in its jail, juvenile detention centers and other cafeterias -- be grown and processed within a 100-mile radius.

Why would such an agriculturally productive place feel the need to promote local food? The truth is, in Woodbury County, as in much of the country, large corporations are increasingly farming the land. Unable to compete, family farms are folding and rural communities are declining. As it turns out, what's grown in Iowa doesn't generally get eaten in Iowa. And a lot of what's eaten in Iowa comes from all over the globe.

The Local Food Purchase Policy was the brainchild of Rob Marqusee, who was hired by the county in 2005 to help rejuvenate the rural economy. Marqusee believes that the county already is sitting on its best revitalization strategy -- or more precisely, it's already eating it. Woodbury County residents spend about $250 million a year on groceries, and only 1 percent of that spending goes to local food. Using the county's purchasing power to buy local food has the potential to shift nearly $300,000 a year to local farmers. More importantly, it may help create a network of area growers and, in turn, encourage more consumers to buy from them.

Woodbury County is joining the fast-growing movement to "eat local." Supporters say the benefits include everything from a stronger sense of community to a healthier planet. Local governments see advantages, too, and a growing number of them are trying to encourage purchases of local, seasonal produce. But those efforts often are stymied by state and federal farm policies, which for decades have favored larger farms. As governments are realizing, it can be tough to eat locally when your policies act globally.

Love for Locavores

The local-food movement, of course, is something of a throwback. Eighty years ago, most people had no choice but to eat crops grown close to market -- and if it wasn't strawberry season, there were no strawberries. That began to change after World War II, as improvements in transportation and refrigeration made it possible to ship fresh food long distances. People started eating pineapples in Boston and shrimp in Kansas City.

Since the mid 1990s, however, local food has grown popular at the grassroots. One manifestation of that is in the number of farmers markets, which has grown from about 1,750 in 1994 to nearly 4,400 today. Another trend is the growth in community-supported agriculture groups, in which customers buy "shares" in a farm and each receives a portion of its produce. These were virtually nonexistent in the United States two decades ago; today, there are more than 1,200 of them. Thousands of people have participated in the "100-mile diet," an online challenge to eat only locally grown food for a month. "Locavore," a noun meaning someone who eats only what's grown nearby, was recently added to the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Proponents of eating locally say it's fresher, healthier and tastier. Supporting farmers close to home, they say, can help stop suburban sprawl by keeping farmland economically viable. The newly popular reason for going local, though, is the sense that it's better for the Earth. By choosing local vegetables over supermarket fare -- which has traveled, on average, 1,300 miles to get to your produce aisle -- you're reducing your carbon footprint.

At least that's the idea. In truth, reducing "food miles" may not always translate into greener groceries. Is it really better for the environment to have 30 farmers driving gas-guzzling pickup trucks to greenmarkets three times a week, instead of one refrigerated truck delivering produce to grocery stores along its route? It's hard to know.

Legal Obstacles

Nevertheless, many state and local governments want to capture and encourage consumer demand for local foods. They have a few options. The first, says Marion Nestle, an author of several books on food policy, is to just get out of the way. "What states and cities have to do is make room for farmers markets. That means closing streets and all that. But it also means removing other barriers."

Nestle advocates less restrictive policies regarding cleanliness and processing for foods sold at farmers markets. Strict regulations -- such as requiring livestock to be slaughtered in a federally inspected facility, or mandating costly permits and site visits from supervisors to certify produce as organic -- make it hard for small farmers to compete. In one month last fall, officials in Virginia, Michigan and Pennsylvania arrested farmers for failing to comply with food laws. But changing those kinds of policies could be difficult. For starters, many of them are mandated at the federal level. And since they protect consumers from eating unsafe foods, easing restrictions like that could be a tough sell.

For its part, the city of Chicago last year kicked off the "Eat Local Live Healthy" program. The city hopes to boost local produce by creating more farmers markets, and by raising public awareness about the benefits of healthful eating. Many cities are directly supporting area growers through farm-to-school programs, which provide school cafeterias with local produce. There are currently more than 1,100 such programs in the country, involving nearly 11,000 schools in 38 states. Another tack, taken by some 30 localities and 11 states, is to promote local eating through a "food policy council." Such entities bring together farmers, distributors, restaurateurs and consumers, in hopes of fortifying the supply chains that deliver food from farms to nearby dining rooms.

Government-sponsored promotional programs, particularly at the state level, do highlight one problem: How do you define "local"? A locavore in Cincinnati, for example, would rather eat lettuce from northern Kentucky and carrots from eastern Indiana than pumpkins from Cleveland. Just because produce comes from your own state doesn't necessarily mean it's local. "There is a little bit of a disconnect there," says Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. When it comes to local food, he says, state boundaries aren't that important. "You can see the drawbacks from having state-based programs, because they'll dilute the benefits of local food."

For that reason, Pirog says, initiatives at the city and county level may be more effective. But that doesn't mean they're easy. In Woodbury County, where the buy-local campaign also came with property tax rebates for farmers who use organic practices, it's been slow going. County departments are ready to buy their food locally, but the suppliers just aren't there yet. Local products -- mostly melons and apple cider -- still account for only about 5 percent of the county's food purchases.

But there are signs that the effort has been worthwhile. A few farmers have moved into Woodbury County. The county's progressive food policies have attracted new businesses, including a $40 million organic soybean processing plant that's currently being built. Marqusee is working on a major financing program that would provide low-interest loans for new farms smaller than 40 acres. And this year, all the eggs bought by the county will come from a local provider. It's a start, Marqusee says. "Creating a local food system is very difficult. It's a massive, 180-degree turnaround for anybody in this area. But we're really just doing the only practical thing we can do to support our rural communities."