Local Foods Connection – Providing Healthy Foods and Smart Nutrition to Low-Income Families
Imagine you’re the head of a family. You’re out of work. Or maybe you have a job that pays minimum wage. Maybe you’re an immigrant, trying hard to adjust to a new country, new foods, new customs — all on a limited income. Or, perhaps someone in your family has a serious illness, and your struggle to pay for medical care leaves little to spend on nutritious food for your children and yourself. In this harsh economic climate, for many people, eating a diet of organic foods is as much a fantasy as a taking a trip to Mars.
As incomes drop and food budgets shrink, food choices shift toward cheaper refined grains, added sugars, and vegetable fats. The first items to drop out of the diet are usually healthy foods – whole grains, lean meats, dairy products, vegetables and fruit. Energy-rich starches, sweets, and fats, many of them nutrient-poor, frequently offer the cheapest way to fill hungry stomachs. — Can Low-Income Americans Afford a Healthy Diet? Adam Drewnowski and Petra Eichelsdoerfer March 2009. A publication of the University of Washington Center for Public Health Nutrition
For the past ten years, Laura Dowd, founder and executive director of Iowa-based Local Foods Connection, has been helping low-income families improve their diets. Each week throughout the growing season, Dowd and a group of volunteers in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines ensure that their clients — low-income individuals and families — each receive a box of fresh, organic produce from a local farm.
Local Foods Connection, a nonprofit, 501(c)3 organization, enrolls select families in community supported agriculture (CSA) programs in their nearby area. Donations from the public, from private corporations, and from grants fund the purchase of healthy food for the families and, at the same time, provide a consistent income stream for the farmers.
But just giving people food without helping them improve their eating habits is not enough, according to Dowd. Local Foods Connection provides a number of ways for families to learn about the importance of organic foods, how to prepare the foods they receive, and how to create a healthy diet. “We’re changing [our clients'] buying habits and improving their nutrition,” Dowd says. “We teach them different ways to get organic food, how to rethink their food budget, and the impact of diet on health and the cost of health care. For most of our clients, someone in the family has medical problems.”
Dowd, a transplant from a Midwest suburb, volunteered on an organic farm in the late 1990s in exchange for produce. She began talking with farmers about how to help low-income families and individuals purchase fresh, organic foods. Initially, she purchased a single CSA membership to share with others less fortunate. “This is not at all what I expected when I started,” she says. Today, Local Foods Connection supports 30 families and 10 non-profits with CSA shares.
Social service agencies, such as the Free Medical Clinic, the Domestic Violence shelter, and the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) refer qualified clients to Local Foods Connection. But the free food comes with expectations: In addition to receiving food and instruction, Local Foods Connection clients volunteer in the community. When they do, they earn points. “We have 15 different activities clients can do to earn points,” Dowd says. Volunteer activities available to clients for earning points include:
- Read a book from the recommended book list and write a review
- Watch a movie from the recommended movie list and write a review
- Visit a farmers market
- Share a recipe with Local Foods Connection
- Take a cooking class
- Send a thank you card to their farmer
- Volunteer on an organic farm
Clients can use the points they earn toward new kitchen equipment to help them prepare healthy meals.
Soon, Dowd says, Local Foods Connection will establish a graduation program, so that families can become “independent consumers,” no longer relying on the support they now receive.
Local Foods Connection also donates boxes of food to social service agencies, such as Head Start and the local Crisis Center Food Bank.
“We do not accept donations of food from farms,” Dowd says. “We pay full price.” The policy helps support small, organic farms, which often have a difficult time competing with mass-production. An exception to this policy occurred this week, however, when Scattergood Friends School gave the Local Foods Connection 40 dozen ears of corn from their bumper crop. Local Foods Connection passed along the corn to the families and their partner agencies.
Five dozen of those ears went to the local Head Start group, in addition to their regular share, which they use to give the children nutritious meals. Dowd reports that one of the Head Start teachers said, “I’ve been working here 17 years, and I’ve never been able to give our kids fresh corn. This is the first time. It’s always been canned or frozen.”
Community volunteers who want to support Local Foods Connection often do farm work at CSAs in the area. Their labor earns financial credits for the organization, which it exchanges for CSA shares. In past years, volunteers have earned Local Foods Connection CSA credits ranging from $200 to $1200 for their labor. These labor contributions are essential to reaching more people in need, according to Dowd. Students at the University of Iowa and Kirkwood Community College can fulfill an environmental science class requirement by volunteering on one of the organic farms on behalf of Local Foods Connection.
Asked how she got started in this venture, with a degree in comparative literature and no social service or accounting experience, Dowd says, “Anybody can do it. Just start small. But start with the idea that you have to be willing to let it change and develop. You don’t have to conquer the world with your first project. Start by accomplishing a small task.” (Perhaps “anybody can do it,” but I suspect they will need boundless energy and a huge heart.) Dowd’s long-term goal is “to have low-income people feel welcome and be active in the local food movement.”
Local Foods Connection survives through the group’s own hard work and the generosity of others. If you’d like to donate to the group or to volunteer at a CSA farm on their behalf, please visit the Local Foods Connection website at www.localfoodsconnection.org. For information about the photographs in this article, contact Dowd at firstname.lastname@example.org.