This Is How Presidential Candidates Can Get Iowa Votes (and Much More)

, director, Food & Environment Program | January 28, 2016, 3:00 pm EDT
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In the last few days before next week’s caucuses, presidential candidates are busily making their case to the citizens of Iowa. My wife and I lived and raised a family in that beautiful state over 28 years, and I well remember the periodic phenomenon of retail politics, followed by four years of continuing to live with the same problems that were there before “political promise season.” Candidates in this presidential campaign cycle, however, have an opportunity to do something truly lasting and innovative for Iowans: create billions of dollars of economic opportunity and a vibrant economy supporting thousands of full-time jobs.

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Mark Bittman and Ricardo Salvador at Des Moines HoQ farm-to-table restaurant with members of Iowa Farmers Union and the Iowa State University Extension Local Foods Team. Photo: Leslie Morrison.

In a report we are releasing today, Growing Economies: Connecting Local Farmers and Large-Scale Buyers to Create Jobs and Revitalize America’s Heartland, our Senior Economist Kranti Mulik explains how this can be done. As befits an economist, Dr. Mulik sees this as a matter of simple supply and demand. Even as midsize family farms in Iowa (and across America) are disappearing, increasing demand for fresh, sustainably grown, local foods can open new opportunities for farmers and rural communities.

This represents a huge opportunity for homegrown  business and livelihood, but one that so far is being missed. Our analysis reveals that innovative public policies that provide incentives to diversified midsize farms and connect them with large food buyers—including supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals, and school districts— could help bring back these farms and create tens of thousands of jobs. This could help reverse the demise of that backbone of Iowan (and American) rural life, the midsize family farm.

These conclusions emerged from an examination of three recent Iowa State University surveys of farmers, food-buying institutions, and regional food coordinators. The objective of the surveys was to determine the potential economic impact if Iowa farmers could supply more of the foods the state’s institutional food buyers want to buy. The analysis revealed that:

  • If just 25 percent of the state’s large food-buyers purchased local food at the same level as survey respondents, it would generate more than $800 million annually for the state’s economy. At 50 per­cent, the impact would be $1.67 billion. And if all of Iowa’s intermediate and institutional markets purchased food locally, the impact would increase to more than $3 billion.
  • Large-scale local buying at the 50 percent level would support 8,500 midsize farms and 89,000 jobs in the state, including 24,000 full-time farm jobs.

The question is not why Iowans should care, nor why the politicians who say they care about what Iowans care about should care. It turns out that the majority of Iowans themselves do care greatly, both as farmers and eaters. Our polling, based in part on focus groups conducted in Des Moines, shows that the nation’s citizens want policies that make healthy foods more affordable, and that they are concerned about the disconnect between our government’s dietary recommendations and the actual policies we enact.

Further, the majority of modern Iowans are urban, and (as elsewhere in the nation) there is a growing culture in the state around farmers markets, local sourcing and healthy food (among other things, this has resulted in the Des Moines Farmers Market becoming the number 2 such market in the nation—behind Pike Place Farmers Market in Seattle. During a recent visit to Des Moines with my colleague Mark Bittman, we met farmers and local food advocates for whom it was a badge of creativity and resourcefulness that they were increasingly restoring local food value chains given Iowa’s abundant resources and within the constraints of its seasons.

All of which leads to the question: why should it be a major “discovery” that Iowa’s existing resources and know-how can match supply and demand for healthy food, to the benefit of Iowa’s farmers, eaters and associated businesses?

Like me, Dr. Mulik—our report’s lead author—also spent time working in Iowa, as an analyst for Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural Research and Development. The experience left her as one of our team’s most ardent advocates for the farmer perspective in our analysis and advocacy. The reasons that Iowans export most of the state’s bounty and import most of their food are not “market outcomes.” They have to do with a history of piecemeal policies that over time have largely emphasized productivism and corporate profit over the interests and wellbeing of people.

We should rework our nation’s food and agriculture policy system to emphasize the goals of improved public health, an enhanced environment, and renewed rural economies. These are the things all Americans can agree are worth the investment of our public dollars. Policies that return midsize farms to the land and connect them with markets will move us closer to those goals. In this political season, presidential candidates should seize the opportunity to improve the nation’s food and farm system for the benefit of us all, and to give Iowans (and all of us) actual lasting solutions.

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