January 2019 Produce Parable

By Adam Calder

The Iowa State University Sustainable Agriculture graduate program recently reached out to me to see if I was interested in discussing my role in procuring local food for the Ames and Iowa community. I eagerly agreed to be part of a panel discussion on local food procurement and distribution with three other panelists: Dan Olmstead, produce manager at the west Hy-vee in Ames; Karen Rodekamp, Manager at ISU Campus Dining Services; and Patty Yoder, Executive Director/Coordinator at Food at First in Ames.

We all discussed our roles, big and small, in sourcing and distributing local food.  On the big end there is the Farm to ISU program Rodekamp helped start at ISU. This program buys produce directly from local farmers and feeds it to ISU students, faculty and staff in the halls of dining service.  Rodekamp said she started the program by reaching out to local farmers and discussing her needs with them.

According to Rodekamp, communication is an important factor in the success of the ISU local food program. “Our growers needed to know that specifications were important to us,” Rodekamp said.  “So bringing them into our facilities and letting them see what our operation was like was important to us.  Working with the ISU Extension program we had a lot of workshops along the way and then, in turn, our staff went to the growers.  We went and weeded rows and rows of melons and crops to see what it took for those growers to get the product to us so it was a two way communication.  I think that’s what made it successful from the beginning.”

In the middle Olmstead talked about the Homegrown Program at Hy-vee, where anything grown within 200 miles of the each store’s front door can be labelled with a “homegrown” sign.  Olmstead said he works with several local farmers throughout the year.

“We work with six growers all year round at the west Ames Hy-vee,” Olmstead said, “during peak season we can work with another ten additional growers.”

On the smaller end of the scale, Patty Yoder talked about feeding the community via Food at First.  “We’re a free meal program and we also have a food pantry. It’s primarily for those in need but everyone is welcome.”

Yoder also spoke of how the service wouldn’t exist if not for the generosity of the community. “There’s no funding except for donations. All of our food comes from local businesses, Iowa State, local growers, the Hort Farm and anywhere anyone has excess food,” Yoder said. “We’re all about recycling and using that food in a good way. Last year we served 26,000 hot meals and we served 44,000 people in our pantry. We’re open every single day.  We serve every day of the year, every weekend, every holiday, every single day you can get a hot meal.  It’s pretty cool we have that in Ames, and it’s only because of the people and the businesses.  Everyone who donates food to us, it’s only because we built those relationships.”

During my turn to speak, I talked about the quality standards in the Wheatsfield produce department and some of the requirements to sell produce to the cooperative. I expressed how important our standards of quality are, and how important it is that the farms we buy produce from grow that produce organically.  While organic certification is not required to sell produce to Wheatsfield, we do give the highest priority to produce that we can represent as organic since that is what our customers desire.

A couple members of the audience asked what we as local food procurement professionals do ensure diversity among the farms we source our produce from.  All panelists agreed that while the majority of the farmers we buy produce from are Caucasian, it is mainly because that is the demographic of most farmers in Iowa.  None of us prohibit anyone from selling produce to our respective businesses because of their minority status.  Everyone is given the same chance to sell produce to Wheatfield, and everyone is held accountable to the same standards and requirements to ensure fairness and transparency.

There were common threads tying all the panelists together.  Everyone has standards and protocols in place to address quality and accountability.  We all talked about the importance of building and maintaining relationships between the people who grow food, the people who sell food and the people who buy and eat food.  All were grateful for the hard work and dedication of Iowa farmers.

This panel was but the first of many designed to foster and further the discussion on sustainably produced local food.  If you are interested in attending the rest of the discussions, they are scheduled for every other Wednesday from January 30 through April 24th.  The colloquium starts at 3:10 p.m. and goes until 5:00 p.m. in room 0013 Curtis Hall on Iowa State University’s central campus, and is open to the public.  If you need additional information, you can reach out to Kristine Lang at [email protected].