Local Foods Connection Blog

Local foods, hunger relief, sustainable agriculture

Please Comment on our Updated Top Ten List April 26, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — localfoodsconnection @ 3:59 pm

Dear Awesome LFC blog readers and all interested in the issues of local food, food justice, human rights, environmental activism, sustainable agriculture, poverty, health and nutrition:

Please take a moment out to comment on our updated “Top Ten Barriers to Local Food Access for Low Income Individuals” article. We know the article will benefit from constructive criticism, and we want to start a national discussion on these issues. You can comment here in our blog or at the Sustainable Table website at: http://www.sustainabletable.org/features/articles/

Thanks so much!

Local Foods Connection is a non-profit organization that purchases produce, meat and other products from small family farmers and donates this food to low-income families. As part of our main program, we enroll families in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups, through which they receive a box of fresh, organic produce every week for approximately 20 weeks. Running concurrently with the CSA program, we offer our clients opportunities to learn about nutrition and healthy meal preparation. They earn points for each educational activity completed and can use these points to purchase kitchen equipment. We have begun our tenth year of work in the Iowa City, Iowa region. We also serve Fairfield, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The “Top 10 Barriers” list was compiled by Local Foods Connection staff and volunteers, as well as social service agency personnel who serve the same populations we do. LFC serves single mothers, people with exceptional medical needs, immigrants, refugees and racial minorities in cities ranging in size from 9,000 to 200,000 people. We realize that people living in bigger cities or smaller towns, in Iowa or elsewhere in the country, might experience additional obstacles unique to their environment and consequently might not be well-represented on this list. Furthermore, we understand that some of the challenges on this list are confronted not only by low-income families, but by people of all income levels wishing to purchase more local foods and to add fresh food to their diet.

Local Foods Connection is excited to start a conversation about the “Top Ten Barriers to Local Food Access for Low-Income Individuals” with other communities around the country. We want to share our thoughts, to expand upon the list and to work together towards new solutions to these problems. Please join the discussion at Sustainable Table’s forum.

1. Financial Restrictions

We believe that cost is the greatest obstacle low-income individuals face in accessing fresh, and especially organic and locally-produced, food.

  • The cost of vegetables and fruit rose 120% between 1985 and 2000, while the price of junk like sodas and sweets went up less than 50% on average. (source 3)
  • Fresh food often doesn’t provide as many calories per dollar as processed food.
  • Fresh food doesn’t stay fresh as long as processed food.
  • Fresh food requires more labor to make into appealing, satisfying meals than processed food.
  • Eating a variety of colorful fresh fruits and vegetables, as recommended by the USDA, is expensive. Even though some fruits and vegetables can be bought at Farmers Markets for a good price, purchasing products of different nutritional contents on a regular basis throughout the year is costly.
  • Eating out-of-season fresh fruits and vegetables is even more expensive.

We believe that healthy food is often one of the first things cut from a family’s budget when they are experiencing financial difficulties. Faced with limited resources,

  • One out of six Americans turns to government food assistance programs.
  • People skip meals.
  • People substitute less expensive, less nutritious alternatives.
  • People go to soup kitchens or food pantries.
  • Parents skip meals to make sure there is enough food for their children. For parents, it is more important to ensure that their children have enough food and “are full” than it is to provide children with a healthy diet.
  • People cannot afford a balanced meal.
  • People choose to pay bills (e.g. rent, utilities, and prescription drugs) instead of buying food.(source 2)

We believe that individuals depending upon supplemental food assistance from the government can be restricted in the types of food they are allowed to purchase.

  • The government places restrictions on where food assistance coupons can be used. For example, WIC coupons cannot be used at the New Pioneer Co-op, the natural food stores in the Iowa City/Coralville area.
  • Organic foods are not always eligible for purchase with WIC coupons. Individual states make the decision. (source 9)

2. Preparation and Storage of Food

We believe that low-income families lack, and cannot afford, much of the equipment and companion ingredients needed to prepare fresh food into a variety of interesting, fulfilling meals throughout the year.

Individuals might lack such basic ingredients as: cooking oil, garlic/onion, butter, milk, flour, spices, etc… Purchasing basic kitchen equipment can be an obstacle as well, such as blenders and adequate pots/pans for recipes that aren’t “one-pot” meals. Major appliances might be absent from their lives or might be inadequate for storage and food preparation. Lots of low-income folks live doubled up (with friends or family members) or in rooming houses where they may be lucky to have one shelf in the fridge for cold storage. Appliances can be unreliable – a cooktop with one working burner, for instance.

3. Distribution of Food

We believe that individuals and families have trouble knowing where to buy fresh local food, in addition to having difficulties getting to these locations. The challenges individuals face can be specific to the area in which they live, be it an urban, suburban or rural environment. Low income individuals might live in areas with restricted access to affordable, healthy/fresh foods.

  • Cars
    • One-stop grocery shopping is easier for low-income individuals because it saves time and gas money.
    • Going to the farmer’s market or a grocery store featuring local foods would require making an additional trip.
  • Public transportation
    • It is not always adequate or easy to use.
    • Carrying groceries on a bus or subway is difficult, especially with children.
    • It is often inadequate in rural areas.
  • Big cities often have food deserts, where only convenience stores are available for food shopping in low-income areas.
  • Food delivery services can be expensive, if available at all.

4. Lack of Knowledge and Education – Low-Income Individuals

We believe that low-income individuals might lack knowledge on how to prepare fresh food for a variety of reasons, including lack of quality education, inexperience of family members, and popular cultural influences. Individuals often lack:

  • An understanding of the meanings and benefits of fresh, organic, and local food.
  • Awareness of the health benefits of eating fresh food.
  • Confidence in preparing fresh food.
  • Skills in preparing fresh food in fast, easy ways.
  • Knowledge of ways to make produce attractive to children.

5. Cultural Values and Lifestyles

We believe that low-income individuals might lack experience eating meals highlighting fresh food.

  • Eating habits developed during childhood, memories from holidays and other celebratory occasions, and positive, community-centered experiences might have centered on comforts foods made with lard, fat, sugar, as well as processed foods.
  • An individual’s life might be lacking in pleasurable and affirmative food-related experiences. Children attending crowded public schools, for example, are forced to eat lunch hurriedly, in shifts as short as 20 minutes, so that maximum use can be made of cafeteria space.
  • Individuals living in urban and suburban settings might be completely disconnected from the agricultural origins of the food they eat. Never having seen a vegetable, a grain, or a fruit growing on a plant, they might be unaware of the simple form food has in its original state, and the changes it undergoes during processing.
  • We believe that low-income families are accustomed to eating fast food because a great deal of fast food advertising targets low-income families and these restaurants are clustered in low-income communities.
  • Families seeking emergency food assistance often receive boxed, canned, and processed food, which has a longer shelf life and can be more easily transported than fresh food. Families who depend on food pantries to survive long-term financial crises can become accustomed to convenience foods.

6. Disabilities

We believe that individuals with disabilities who take care of themselves, and those who depend upon others to care for them, face even more obstacles to local food access than those faced by the low-income population in general. There is a very high correlation between having a disability and have a low-income.

  • To remain eligible to receive services through Medicaid, individuals are forced to remain at a very low-income level, hindering their ability to purchase fresh food. (source 5)
  • Undiagnosed individuals with mental retardation usually don’t know how to use the store or even the oven. They often rely on microwave and take-out.
  • Diagnosed individuals with mental retardation might receive funding for services and have access to Support Community Living (SCL). SCL is a one-on-one service that teaches, assists and creates skills for individuals with disabilities. The goal of SCL is to work toward specific goals and increase client’s independent living skills and community development. SCL clients can have goals that help them learn about nutrition and how to cook and shop wisely. However,
    • SCL workers might not be educated in the areas of fresh food, nutrition and cooking.
    • Recipes need to be easy and only a few steps long.
  • Similar challenges are faced by individuals with physical and mental illness and brain injury. These individuals might be eligible for Consumer Directed Attendant Care (CDAC). CDAC workers can grocery shop and prepare meals for clients.
    • However, CDAC workers might not be educated in nutrition and cooking.

7. Preparation and Storage of Food – Social Service Agencies

We believe that the variety of social service agencies which are in a position to assist their low-income client increase their consumption of local and fresh foods often lack the time, funding, experience and education to do so. Examples of the types of agencies and organizations that we believe could help their clients learn more about local and fresh food include: food pantries, neighborhood centers, Lion’s Clubs, churches, homeless and domestic violence shelters, medical clinics, family resource centers, and environmental action groups.

  • Few staff members at social service agencies have the extra time to add the component of local foods to their work.
  • These agencies might not have adequate space, kitchen equipment and utensils with which to prepare fresh food.
  • These agencies might lack the major appliance for the storage, refrigeration and freezing of fresh food.
  • These agencies might lack the extra volunteers to process and store fresh ingredients safely.

8. Fulfillment of Government Nutrition Standards – Agencies & Institutions

We believe that state and federal restrictions on food purchasing can negatively affect the decision to acquire local foods by agencies and institutions that serve food to their clients, such as senior centers and school districts. If government money is used to purchase foods at an institution, it might be required to meet government nutrition standards. Reconfiguring a menu to incorporate local foods and continue to meet these standards can be a burden.

9. Lack of Education – Social Service Agencies

We believe that the knowledge and understanding of local and fresh foods can be limited at all levels with a social service agency’s workforce.

  • Workers at these agencies might lack the same knowledge of nutrition and lack fresh food preparation skills as the clients do.
  • Agency administration might not have considered the potential positive relationship between improving their clients’ health through their diet, and improving other aspects of their clients’ lives. In order for agency staff to integrate nutrition and food into their interactions with clients, there must be interest in and commitment from the agencies’ supervisors or board of directors.

10. Lack of Education – General Population

We believe that if the general public understood the obstacles to local food that low-income families face they would support programs and organizations that increase this population’s access to good, fresh food. We believe that the general public lacks knowledge of:

  • The extent of poverty in Iowa.
  • The causes of poverty.
  • How poverty affects food shopping habits.


Local Foods Connection is excited about starting a conversation about this list! Please join the discussion at Sustainable Table’s forum and share your experiences with everyone!

  • Would you change the order of any item on the list? (1 = greatest obstacle; 10 = least obstacle)
  • Would you add any item to this list?
  • Can you share an experience you have had with any of these obstacles?
  • Do you disagree with anything we have said?
  • What solutions do you have to offer?

Local Foods Connection

With special thanks to: Tiffany Boyle, the Lead Family Services Coordinator for the ARC of Southeast Iowa which assists developmentally disabled individuals in our community to realize their full potential in how they live, learn, work and play.

Katherine Nydam-Olivier, a social worker who works primarily with people who are homeless in Iowa City.

This document was prepared as a community service by volunteers. The initiative for the creation of this document came from the Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development Office’s I Food Initiative, a project to help strengthen the local food network in Southeast Iowa.

Our first version of the “Top Ten” list was presented at a workshop at the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture. _ARTICLES


1. 2007 Hunger in Iowa Report by Susan Roberts and Erin Feld (and the 2003 report)

2. The Hartford Food System: A Guide to Developing Community Food Programs, Replication Manual put out by World Hunger Year

3. Don’t Eat This Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America by Morgan Spurlock

4. Iowans Fit for Life, Active and Eating Smart: Nutrition and Physical Activity by the Iowa Department of Public Health,1, Nutrition and Physical Activity.

5. Eligibility requirements for individuals with disabilities: www.socialsecurity.gov and http://www.cms.hhs.gov/home/medicaid.asp

6. The ARC of East Central Iowa

7. Living Well Iowa (run in this area by Keith Ruff through the Evert Conner Center)

8. Retail and Consumer Aspects of the Organic Milk Market by Carolyn Dimitri and Kathryn M. Venezia for the US Dept. of Agriculture, May 2007.

9. Frequently asked questions of the WIC program

10. Are Lower Income Households Willing and Able to Budget for Fruits and Vegetables? by Hayden Stewart and Noel Blisard for the USDA: Economic Research Service, Jan 2008

11. Dynamics of Poverty and Food Sufficiency by David Ribar and Karen Hamrick for the USDA: Economic Research Service, Sept 2003

12. Household Food Security in the United States, 2006 by Mark Nord, Margaret Andrews and Steven Carlson for the USDA: Economic Research Service, November 2007


Jen’s Reflections on a workday at ZJ Farm April 22, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — caroline@LFC @ 6:12 pm
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Back on the 12th of April, a group of volunteers descended upon ZJ Farms in Solon. Laura led the charge, with the repeat volunteers, Robert and me, and a group of students from an environmental science class. Everyone made it safely, although a few of us (I’ll name no names) may have perhaps gotten a little bit lost – but only for a few minutes!

We all gathered in the sheep barn, intrigued as to what our tasks for this farm work day would include. First, Laura passed around two handouts which were meant to educate the environmental science class. The first had a list of terms and their definitions, and as we looked over it, one phrase in particular jumped out: pesticide treadmill. Susan, the owner of ZJ Farms, informed us that a pesticide treadmill is an unending cycle where farms have to up the ante on their pesticides because the pests are becoming more and more resistant to the chemical compounds. She also briefly touched on how our outlawed pesticides are still being made in the United States, and are being exported overseas to other countries. Some of that produce then makes its way back into the United States, where we consume it. The second handout explained how volunteering time to work on the farm benefits the environment.

After this discussion, we all broke out into groups. A set of people worked on creating tomato cages out of concrete rebar,

concrete rebar #1

concrete rebar #2

another group worked on cutting milk jugs,

cutting milk jugs

and a third clustered into the greenhouse to work on creating soil blocks to plant seeds in.

I was working in the greenhouse, so I’m not really sure what was going on back at the barn. Once we arrived in the greenhouse, we mixed soil and water to the correct consistency

greenhouse #1

(as Robert told us, “The correct consistency is key!”) and then Robert started making the soil blocks.

greenhouse #2

Some people migrated into the greenhouse to start planting the seeds into the soil blocks.

greenhouse #3

greenhouse #4

I worked on transplanting some tomato seedlings to encourage root ball growth. Here, I’m listening to Susan very intently. See the concentration on my face?

greenhouse #5

Lunch time came around quickly, and almost everyone left, I’m sure quite hungry from their morning’s labor at the farm. I had some time to kill (and had a very large breakfast), so I stuck around to help Susan a little more. We finished transplanting the tomatoes, and she pointed out some large boxes that some volunteers had created (I must have missed that when I was in the greenhouse!). We shuffled around some flats of seeds and set up the warming mats in those boxes for the small seedlings.

I had a great time working at the farm, and I look forward to coming back often throughout the season. It’s a good feeling to look out over Susan’s farm and realize that you had a (albeit very small) part in the process.

The best thing about volunteering at Local Foods Connection, hands down, is knowing that I am not only supporting small family-owned and run farms, but I am also helping low-income families in my area get fresh food. As food prices rise around the world, it’s nice to know that I can use some of my time to the benefit of so many different spheres: the environment, local agriculture, CSA Farms in particular, and the everyday people that surround me.


Revisiting “Local” Food April 15, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — caroline@LFC @ 5:58 pm

Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about “local” food lately. And after browsing through our 2008 Community Supported Agriculture Guide for the Iowa City area, I started thinking about my own contributions to the foods that I eat. I reminisced about last season’s attempt to grow tomatoes, chives, and aphid-riddled zucchinis in pots on the back porch. And I dreamed of the aphid-free zucchinis I’m going to plant in our new sun-filled yard next year.

While I don’t pretend to think I can produce all of the fruits and vegetables that I eat in my own yard (at least not yet!), and I’m thrilled that I can purchase fresh, local produce from farmers like Maury and Sherry Sass, I sometimes forget about just how delicious, inexpensive, and fun hyper-local food can be. Home gardens take time, though; time you might not have. So maybe this year I’ll enlist the help of a few neighbors to distribute some of the work.

And it turns out that this communal work for hyper-local food has a long tradition in Iowa. Communal gardening was a way of life in the Amana Colonies, which, at one point, included some 50 communal kitchen houses. Each communal kitchen house was shared by multiple families, and the families would distribute the tasks of growing and then cooking their food.

While I may not be willing to give up my home kitchen at this point, I’ve taken some inspiration from the lesson of the Amanas. If you’re interested in some inspiration, maybe you want to take a trip over to Amana. The Amana Heritage Society offers information about Amana, as well providing links for guided tours.

You might just take home a few lessons.


Another Great Depression? April 8, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — caroline@LFC @ 1:00 am

UK’s The Independent ran a story last week entitled “USA 2008: The Great Depression.” In it, journalist David Usborne argues that the growing number of Americans relying on food stamps is the surest indicator that the US is facing an economic recession.

As Usborne describes, a shocking 28 million people in the US will be enrolled in a food stamp program this year, the highest level since the program’s inception. Link to the original article here, or read on below.


USA 2008: The Great Depression

Food stamps are the symbol of poverty in the U.S. In the era of the credit crunch, a record 28 million Americans are now relying on them to survive a sure sign the world’s richest country faces economic crisis.

By David Usborne in New York
Tuesday, 1 April 2008

We knew things were bad on Wall Street, but on Main Street it may be worse. Startling official statistics show that as a new economic recession stalks the United States, a record number of Americans will shortly be depending on food stamps just to feed themselves and their families.

Dismal projections by the Congressional Budget Office in Washington suggest that in the fiscal year starting in October, 28 million people in the US will be using government food stamps to buy essential groceries, the highest level since the food assistance programme was introduced in the 1960s.

The increase – from 26.5 million in 2007 – is due partly to recent efforts to increase public awareness of the programme and also a switch from paper coupons to electronic debit cards. But above all it is the pressures being exerted on ordinary Americans by an economy that is suddenly beset by troubles. Housing foreclosures, accelerating jobs losses and fast-rising prices all add to the squeeze.

Emblematic of the downturn until now has been the parades of houses seized in foreclosure all across the country, and myriad families separated from their homes. But now the crisis is starting to hit the country in its gut. Getting food on the table is a challenge many Americans are finding harder to meet. As a barometer of the country’s economic health, food stamp usage may not be perfect, but can certainly tell a story.

Michigan has been in its own mini-recession for years as its collapsing industrial base, particularly in the car industry, has cast more and more out of work. Now, one in eight residents of the state is on food stamps, double the level in 2000. “We have seen a dramatic increase in recent years, but we have also seen it climbing more in recent months,” Maureen Sorbet, a spokeswoman for Michigan’s programme, said. “It’s been increasing steadily. Without the programme, some families and kids would be going without.”

But the trend is not restricted to the rust-belt regions. Forty states are reporting increases in applications for the stamps, actually electronic cards that are filled automatically once a month by the government and are swiped by shoppers at the till, in the 12 months from December 2006. At least six states, including Florida, Arizona and Maryland, have had a 10 per cent increase in the past year.

In Rhode Island, the segment of the population on food stamps has risen by 18 per cent in two years. The food programme started 40 years ago when hunger was still a daily fact of life for many Americans. The recent switch from paper coupons to the plastic card system has helped remove some of the stigma associated with the food stamp programme. The card can be swiped as easily as a bank debit card. To qualify for the cards, Americans do not have to be exactly on the breadline. The programme is available to people whose earnings are just above the official poverty line. For Hubert Liepnieks, the card is a lifeline he could never afford to lose. Just out of prison, he sleeps in overnight shelters in Manhattan and uses the card at a Morgan Williams supermarket on East 23rd Street. Yesterday, he and his fiancée, Christine Schultz, who is in a wheelchair, shared one banana and a cup of coffee bought with the 82 cents left on it.

“They should be refilling it in the next three or four days,” Liepnieks says. At times, he admits, he and friends bargain with owners of the smaller grocery shops to trade the value of their cards for cash, although it is illegal. “It can be done. I get $7 back on $10.”

Richard Enright, the manager at this Morgan Williams, says the numbers of customers on food stamps has been steady but he expects that to rise soon. “In this location, it’s still mostly old people and people who have retired from city jobs on stamps,” he says. Food stamp money was designed to supplement what people could buy rather than covering all the costs of a family’s groceries. But the problem now, Mr Enright says, is that soaring prices are squeezing the value of the benefits.

“Last St Patrick’s Day, we were selling Irish soda bread for $1.99. This year it was $2.99. Prices are just spiralling up, because of the cost of gas trucking the food into the city and because of commodity prices. People complain, but I tell them it’s not my fault everything is more expensive.”

The US Department of Agriculture says the cost of feeding a low-income family of four has risen 6 per cent in 12 months. “The amount of food stamps per household hasn’t gone up with the food costs,” says Dayna Ballantyne, who runs a food bank in Des Moines, Iowa. “Our clients are finding they aren’t able to purchase food like they used to.”

And the next monthly job numbers, to be released this Friday, are likely to show 50,000 more jobs were lost nationwide in March, and the unemployment rate is up to perhaps 5 per cent.