A recent report by Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems studies the growth and achievements of the Regional Food Systems Working Group (RFSWG), an organization in Iowa committed to building long-term local agriculture commerce in the state. The group is part of Value Chain Partnerships (VCP), an Iowa-based network of food- and agriculture-related working groups. RFSWG serves as an umbrella group for Iowans working in the area of local food systems. Originally, RFSWG took an issue-based approach towards the needs of local farmers but, over time, it shifted its focus to a more geographically-based approach, which allowed them to engage with farmers in specific areas of the state.
In the past five years the arguments in favor of in favor of supporting local food commerce “…have generally expanded from a focus on potential environmental benefits to one that includes economic and community benefits.” Economic analyses in Ohio, Iowa, and Michigan have shown that as local food production, marketing, and sales increase, labor income rises and new jobs are created. In addition to these economic and community benefits, a higher level of healthy food consumption can help reduce childhood obesity and expand food access in under-served areas.
The study listed several benefits of RFSWG, according to the different roles the group played. Among its many benefits were giving producers and businesses a “greater awareness of a wider range of support providers and services” and allowing organizations to better manage “local politics” associated with food systems. The key impacts of RFSWG included the development of strong, productive networks of farmers and organizations; a higher level of credibility that helps change the customs and practices of supporting organizations and institutions; increased efficiency of organizations; and increased influence on public policies that are more supportive of local food systems.
Through this study, the researchers found several characteristics to be necessary for local food networks to collaborate successfully. For instance, local engagement at the grassroots level is critical to making decision, ensuring the work is useful and effective, and building credibility. Institutions must take cues from the grassroots movements to provide resources to the movement, and to help inform the public of the grassroots work in the state. Finally, values and power should be shared collectively within and between organizations.
The study also related a story from 2007 involving one of the regional food system groups supported by RFSWG, the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm (NIFF) Coalition. When they distributed a survey about activities and attitudes relating to local food purchasing, personnel from area hospitals and nursing homes said they would like to purchase local foods but they believed that state policy prevented them from doing so. When the Northeast Iowa regional food group leaders in RFSWG found out about this, they contacted the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) for an explanation of why state policy might have prevented such purchases. They learned from the IDPH that there was no language in the Iowa code that would prevent institutions from buying local foods.
In the fall of 2007, Northeast Iowa group members attending an RFSWG meeting told their story. An RFSWG participant from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) who was in the audience heard their concerns. She decided to search the Iowa Code for the regulations they might be referring to, but could not find any. She communicated with the Iowa Department of Health Facilities about the issue, and the Department developed a document that clarified the state rules for purchasing local foods, which they then sent to about 400 nursing homes and hospitals across the state. Through the efforts of the RFSWG network, new markets were researched and uncovered to the benefit of farmers throughout Iowa.
The work of the RFSWG serves as model for those of us across the U.S., showing the potential of collaboration and partnerships among those who are part of a statewide farming community. RFSWG’s example is noteworthy as a way to promote local, sustainable farming, and for food networks seeking change from the grassroots throughout the U.S.