Expanding Local Food Access
For Tony Thompson of Prudent Produce, a food hub based in Elkhart, Iowa, the work week begins on Thursday. Tony and other staff meet to discuss and plan the week’s inventory of produce and other items, then send their customers an email to pick from the week’s lineup for their orders.
Box types range from small veggie bins for one person to large bins for larger families. One option is to receive produce that comes exclusively from Iowa producers. Orders are finalized on Sundays at 9 a.m., at which point Tony says it’s “a mad rush to get orders out to farms and distributors.” Prudent Produce aggregates all of the week’s products through Monday morning, and then the distribution begins. “We have a team of three or four people that pack our famous blue or green bins with people’s orders,” Tony says, “and another team of three delivers them all around central and north-central Iowa.” Thursday is the last delivery day, and then the week begins again.
As a food hub, Tony’s business occupies a unique place in Iowa’s local food system. Food hubs act as aggregators and distributors of local products from multiple sources. When done correctly, this service lets individual producers expand their customer base while allowing consumers to support a variety of Iowa growers.
Given Iowa’s food statistics, this service is especially important: While around 72% of Iowa’s land is dedicated to agriculture, 90% of the state’s food is imported, due in part to the lack of distribution systems for local produce. PFI organizational members like Prudent Produce are helping to fill this void and make local food more available. These local food distributors also center PFI farmers in their procurement, boosting local food systems and improving health and rural vitality for Iowans.
When Angie Laverty founded Prudent Produce in 2010, her goal was to create an organic-only produce distribution business, connecting people with easy access to good food. As the business grew, she worked with Tony Thompson, who runs New Family Farm in Elkhart, to build a partnership between the organizations.
The merger between Prudent Produce and New Family Farm was a win for Tony. The move allowed Prudent Produce to drastically increase its emphasis on local foods while giving members of his CSA access to produce all year. Prudent Produce officially relocated from a strip mall in Ankeny to New Family Farm in 2017. Now, the business works with more than 50 Iowa farmers and dozens of local businesses to serve hundreds of families in central and north-central Iowa.
Where Prudent Produce deals mainly in individual orders, Iowa Food Hub works with wholesalers like schools to provide local options. Its typical week involves delivering directly to schools, grocery stores and restaurants. “We currently have four delivery routes that operate weekly,” says Peter Kraus, general manager of Iowa Food Hub, “and two routes that are seasonal that take us to Dubuque, Mason City, LaCrosse, Viroqua, Cedar Falls and Waterloo, Iowa City, Des Moines and lots of small towns along the way.” During summer vacation, when produce is most plentiful, Iowa Food Hub helps connect local food with farm stands, special events, food pantries and partner food hubs.
The organization was founded to fill a gap between northeastern Iowa producers and area schools that needed a convenient way to order local products. The schools had plateaued in their purchasing of local foods, to around $20,000 total for all K-12 schools in northeastern Iowa. In 2013, with three pallets in a grocery store cooler space, Iowa Food Hub stepped in as the aggregator and distributor. It then rode the wave of the local foods movement, growing its farm-to-institution work.
Unfortunately, Iowa Food Hub suffered a tumultuous period from 2018 to 2020. The loss of a delivery truck, combined with loss of funding and other issues, led the hub to temporarily close. Thanks to the work of ISU extension specialists, and buoyed by Iowa’s launch of the Local Food Purchasing Assistance Program in 2022 – a program PFI played a key role in helping to start – Peter says Iowa Food Hub was “resurrected … from the ashes to support and continue its local food procurement work.”
The group took the pandemic in stride, creating an online farmers market for individual consumers that’s still going. Today, Iowa Food Hub works with 110 farms and food producers, and it serves 120 customers – most of whom are K-12 schools and colleges.
Practical Farmers at the Center
As PFI organizational members, Prudent Produce and Iowa Food Hub both work with individual PFI farmer members to help them succeed. Tony joined PFI in 2013 after learning from long-time members and says he wants to support those who mentored him. “The PFI farmer network is the first place I look to when we need help sourcing products,” he says. “Those family-sized and diverse operations are the farms that we want to build up and help to sustain.”
PFI’s farmer network also supports Iowa Food Hub, and vice versa. PFI members sell through the hub and help direct it by serving on the food hub’s board of directors. PFI also plays an indirect role through its programming that supports northeastern Iowa farmers.
“We benefit because our local producers benefit in a variety of ways from PFI’s work,” Peter says.
Food hubs handle the challenging logistics of bridging the gap between producers and consumers, especially when it comes to setting fair prices. “Conversations with PFI members over the years have certainly shaped our understanding of what producers need to be operationally viable,” Tony says.
Hopes for an Iowa Food Future
Consumer momentum is growing to support food hubs and their producers. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted grocery supply chains, leading Iowans to buy from food hubs and directly from farmers. Tony says Prudent Produce’s business tripled over the course of six weeks at the start of the pandemic. The momentum didn’t fade and Tony wants to further fortify the food hub and its vendors. “The hope,” he says, “is that Prudent Produce can help be one significant and viable market to help local food producers get to a financially sustainable position.”
Iowa Food Hub, with the pandemic behind and the future ahead, is looking to use new funding from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Specialty Crop Block Grant program to connect all food hubs in Iowa. The project lifts both food hubs and producers, who gain access to markets statewide. “This project has been incredibly impactful for food hubs in Iowa who can now source products across the state,” Peter says, “and it couldn’t have come at a better time.” With the potential for more business, Iowa Food Hub wants to expand its processing capacity and infrastructure for vegetable, fruit and grain producers. “We want Iowa to be growing and eating more of its own food,” Peter says.
During her keynote speech at PFI’s 2023 annual conference, Donna Pearson McClish, founder and CEO of Common Ground Mobile Market and Mobile Food in Wichita, Kansas, reminded the audience that what we plant today, we harvest tomorrow. Putting in the effort on the front end requires expanding our community of growers and producers, paying farmers equitable wages and making fresh, healthy food accessible for all citizens.
Creating such a dynamic local food system is an incremental process, and it requires mindset changes for consumers and producers alike – but the benefits are worth the effort for Iowa farmers and communities. Tony hopes that food hubs like Prudent Produce can help to influence consumer mindsets in this way. “That is when we can get to a level of purchasing from producers that helps them to be viable long-term.”
Find Local Food Near You
To find PFI member farms, food hubs or other local food distributors near you, visit practicalfarmers.org/directories. Contact Emma at email@example.com to have your farm or business added!