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Farmers and Students Benefit as Local Food Initiative in Iowa Exceeds Expectations

August 17, 2015 |

Source:  Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative

Source: Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative

For the past eight years, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness initiative has focused on school wellness, activities and increasing local food for young people. The group took advantage of new federal government nutritional requirements and worked with Iowa school systems to help create a seasonal, local menu for students in six districts. Funding for the project was obtained through the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

By harnessing the distribution reach of the Iowa Food Hub, select districts began implementing a seasonal menu focusing on 10 different fruits and vegetables that grow well in the state and are affordable for schools. Among these are apples, watermelon, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, summer and winter squash and sweet potatoes. Supplemental foods such as eggs, yogurt, meat, and frozen products are also sourced locally and used year round.

According to Teresa Wiemerslage, Program Coordinator with ISU Extension and Outreach, the initiative has extended purchasing power beyond expectations.

“Our goal with this particular grant project was to double local food purchases from $9,000 to $18,000 the first year. Up to $23,000 was actually spent and the four school districts combined have doubled again with a purchase plan of $72,000 in Iowa grown produce and food products,” says Wiemerslage. “As the program continues, production agreements with individual farms are expected.”

The Iowa Department of Public Health has also shown interest in extending the program to the Ames School district, which serves over 5,000 students. Wiemerslage believes that the seasonal cycle menus are a model that is applicable to other states as well.

“We are focusing on foods that are easily grown in Iowa. Imagine what the program could look like in an agricultural powerhouse like Michigan,” she says. “If Iowa can do it, I believe that other states can as well.”

One of the challenges of introducing a fresh and seasonal menu to students is their lack of familiarity with some of the new items on offer.

The Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness program addresses this problem by expanding upon their successful school mentorship program, which implements cross-age teaching in which older students teach younger students to try new foods.

“Using older high school-age youth is very effective and the relationship is really impressive,” says Wiemerslage. She says high school students are trained in nutrition education through ISU extension and work with a coach as well as Americorp and other groups, so that they are better able to positively impact younger students with food choices.

According to Wiemerslage, the nutritional shift also affects food service workers in the school system. Intensive scratch-based cooking happens weekly, although the primary difference is that rather than making bars and cookies on a regular basis, cooks have been switched to vegetable prep. Wiemerslage explains that there has been no significant increase in labor within the schools to accommodate the new menu and all of the school districts involved are continuing the program in 2016.

The ISU website gives details about additional training for kitchen workers in food handling and safety, as well as in how to source and purchase local foods within the food hub system. The website describes how Iowa’s commitment to bringing local, fresh foods into the school system stems in part from the core values reflected in the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative, which attempts to measure and improve health outcomes for all residents in the state.

“I challenge you to be the first to assess how your school, workplace or community is doing to support a healthy lifestyle for Iowans and make Iowa the healthiest state in the nation,” said Jami Haberl, Iowa Healthiest State Initiative Executive Director. “By working together to maximize our state’s well-being, Iowa will become the leader in health and wellness.”

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