IOWA CITY — With rising grocery costs, record inflation and a crunch of other economic factors hitting families this year, it’s no surprise that sustainable access to healthy, local food is becoming more critical to help families make ends meet.
As families scrutinize their budgets more each month or look for ways to eat healthier, some organizations in Johnson County are making new efforts to reach families across the board.
Multilingual farmers market
In its third season this year, Field to Family’s online farmers market is hoping to reach a swathe of different customers through a simple but rare addition to local hunger nonprofits: a service in several different languages.
Now, customers looking for healthy and locally sourced food can place their orders at orders.fieldtofamily.org in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Swahili. Orders accepted online from 8 a.m. Monday through noon Tuesday are available for pickup at the Field to Family warehouse at the South District’s Pepperwood Plaza building soon after.
The online-only market, started three years ago during the pandemic, offers seasonal crops and agricultural products from more than 20 local growers and vendors, including fruit, vegetables, honey, milk, butter, eggs, grains and meat.
“Creating innovative ways to expand access to local foods is a top priority for Field to Family,” said Executive Director Michelle Kenyon. “As an organization committed to creating a stronger community-based food system, partnering with local growers to facilitate connections with the community is paramount. Providing local foods from local growers in multiple languages increases the ability for more community members to choose locally grown foods.”
Multicultural access, support
As part of the project, Field to Family piloted a food access program last fall by partnering with organizations providing direct services to underserved clients who are excluded from government support programs.
The nonprofit also has been working to develop new partnerships with Iowa producers from socially disadvantaged backgrounds including people of color, women, veterans and LGBTQ producers. It has plans to nearly double the number of farmers who meet this criteria — from 25 to 47 by the end of this year.
With smaller markets, new producers are able to get their feet wet and grow their business at a pace that works for them, while providing culturally appropriate food that those from diverse backgrounds crave — like white eggplants and amaranth leaves popular among African immigrants. Together, pairing small producers with expansive audiences builds a more secure local economy, healthier environment and stronger food security amid supply chain disruptions in the pandemic’s wake.
Grow: Johnson County’s annual Voice Your Choice survey gives consumers a say in what produce they’d like to see more of, allowing the farm to grow more culturally relevant crops. This year, for example, it has added paprika and Thai chili peppers.
Home delivery services, previously done in the past by Field to Family, will resume in the future once the organization develops a new system.
“Building a more community-based food system that is resilient, accessible and inclusive requires all of us to act,” Kenyon said. “Enabling more community members from diverse backgrounds to access our food hub and online farmers market makes Iowa local food more available and reduces the amount of food we are importing from other regions and countries.”
Greater quantities require more volunteers
As the Iowa Legislature considers new bills each session to further restrict SNAP benefits, food pantries across the state are seeing even more strain on the number of Iowans requiring their support. A June 2023 forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects food-at-home prices to increase 6 percent over last year.
In Johnson County alone, food pantries are seeing a 70 percent to 90 percent increase in the number of people turning to them for support, said Coralville Community Food Pantry Executive Director John Boller.
Grow: Johnson County is requesting more volunteers to help harvest over 90 vegetable varieties, including peppers, tomatoes, okra, potatoes and tomatillos before planting the fall crops. All crops are directly sent to organizations that help food-insecure families keep hunger at bay.
To learn more or volunteer, visit growjohnsoncounty.org or contact Claire Zabel at email@example.com.
As demand surges, nonprofits like Grow: Johnson County are working harder to get food to tables. The nonprofit, which produces more than 30,000 pounds of produce per year on its five-acre farm in Iowa City, directly supplies 16 partner agencies, including pantries at the University of Iowa, Coralville Food Pantry and Iowa City Free Lunch.
This year, Grow: Johnson County has expanded its reach to Kirkwood Community College’s food pantry and Table to Table food rescue’s pop-up market.
That’s in addition to the groundbreaking year for school outreach growth from Field to Family. This year, the educational food hub has increased its reach from nine school districts to 36 — over $172,000 in local food.
When added to its plans to supply 17 other food access agencies, that means Field to Family will be distributing over half a million dollars worth of food in the region through March 2024.
But they can’t do it alone. This month, Grow: Johnson County needs volunteers to harvest over 90 vegetable varieties before planting crops for the fall harvest.
“The need right now is higher than ever. Food pantries across the state are breaking records,” Boller said. “If you are able to volunteer, donate your time or resources to food pantries, Grow: Johnson County, and the food rescue program Table to Table, we’re all working together to ensure that our neighbors have access to the food they need and deserve.”
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