New report shows how local food helps Iowa's economy

Monday, November 11, 2013

AMES, Iowa -- A new report from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture shows that institutional purchases of local food added nearly $9 million to the Iowa economy in 2012.

What’s more, the report points out enormous opportunities for local foods in Iowa that could benefit rural communities and farm-based businesses. Investigators measured significant sales from only a small segment of potential markets for local foods among grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes, college and school food services and other institutions.

The findings are part of an evaluation of the Regional Food Systems Working Group (RFSWG) that supports local food systems in 90 of Iowa’s 99 counties. It is the first coordinated, comprehensive attempt to measure actual economic and community impacts associated with regional food system development in Iowa.

The evaluation tracked local food purchases by grocery stores, restaurants and institutions, and sales from Iowa farm-based enterprises that marketed their products locally in 2012. Nearly 180 businesses and individuals participated in the data collection effort, including 74 buyers and 103 producers of local foods. The evaluation also measured job creation as a result of local food production, processing or utilization, and counted funds leveraged by the regional food groups that comprise the statewide RFSWG network.

“Most of the information we’ve had in the past came from economic models, that is, projections based on potential scenarios and assumptions, not what actually happened during a specific time period,” said associate scientist Corry Bregendahl, who coordinated the data collection project for the Leopold Center with Leopold Center program assistant Arlene Enderton.

She said the report also differs in the type of sales information that was collected, which included data from institutional and intermediary markets as well as direct sales.

“Most people think local food sales are only those between farmers and individual consumers, such as farmers markets or community supported agriculture (CSA) enterprises,” she explained. “We also measured sales to institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes, and schools, grocery stores and restaurants. These markets represent huge potential markets for local foods, and serve a population that needs greater access to healthy food.”

Bregendahl and the coordinators of the 15 regional food groups in the RFSWG network collaborated to gather and assess the data. The coordinators distributed surveys to area buyers and farmers they worked with to collect information about these key indicators of economic impact:

  • Local food purchases in 2012: 74 buyers reported total purchases of $8,934,126.
  • Local food sales in 2012: 103 farmers reported total sales of $10,549,296;
  • New jobs related to local food in 2012: A total 36 new jobs (24 full-time equivalent) were created in 2012 (reported by a subset of buyers and farmers).
  • Funds leveraged by eight regional food groups in 2012: $766,020.

Bregendahl said the 74 buyers spent an average $120,700 on local foods, or about 8.7 percent of their total food budget. If local food purchases were increased to 30 percent of the total food budget, an additional $21.5 million in sales would have been generated, leading to the creation of 71 new full-time buyer-based jobs. Less than half of one percent of the estimated 22,000 institutional and intermediary markets in Iowa participated in this evaluation.

“When you look at jobs related to public money invested in the local food groups, we found that it’s relatively inexpensive to create full-time employment opportunities in Iowa communities,” she said. Calculations showed that it cost the public $17,874 to support one new FTE job in the local foods sector. “Local foods commerce expands and complements what we’re already doing in Iowa agriculture; it does not compete with it,” Bregendahl added.

The evaluation reflects efforts throughout Iowa by RFSWG’s 15 geographically-based groups. Each group works with different stakeholders – farmers, food-based businesses, non-profits, Extension, Resource Conservation and Development organizations, educational institutions and government agencies – to support local food systems development in their region.

Here are the 15 groups and counties where each group works:

  • Flavors of Northwest Iowa: Cherokee, Ida, Monona, Plymouth, Sioux, Lyon, O'Brien, Buena Vista, Dickinson, Emmet, Osceola, O'Brien, Buena Vista, Palo Alto and Woodbury
  • Northern Iowa Food and Farm Partnership: Benton, Black Hawk, Bremer, Buchanan, Butler, Grundy and Tama
  • Northeast Iowa Food & Farm Coalition: Allamakee, Chickasaw, Clayton, Howard, Fayette and Winneshiek
  • Southern Iowa Regional Food Systems: Adair, Adams, Clarke, Decatur, Guthrie, Ringgold, Taylor and Union
  • South Central Iowa Area Partnership: Appanoose, Clarke, Decatur, Lucas, Madison, Monroe, Union, Warren and Wayne
  • Hometown Harvest of Southeast Iowa: Davis, Jefferson, Keokuk, Mahaska, Van Buren, Wapello, Appanoose, Lee, Des Moines, Henry, Washington, Lee, and Louisa
  • Dubuque Eats Well: Delaware, Dubuque, Jackson and Jones
  • Field to Family Food Coalition: Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn, Poweshiek, Tama and Washington
  • Healthy Harvest of North Iowa: Cerro Gordo, Floyd, Franklin, Hancock, Kossuth, Mitchell, Winnebago, Worth and Wright
  • Eat Greater Des Moines: Polk
  • Quad Cities Food Hub: Clinton, Muscatine and Scott
  • Harvest from the Heart: Marshall
  • Food and Farm Initiative of the Heartland: Audubon, Cass, Fremont, Guthrie, Harrison, Mills, Montgomery, Pottawattamie and Shelby
  • Greene County Local Foods Working Group: Greene, Carroll, and Guthrie
  • Central Iowa RFSWG: Boone, Hardin and Story

The statewide report, 2012 Economic Impacts of Iowa’s Regional Food Systems Working Group, is available on the Leopold Center website at:  

Additional data and profiles of local food champions also are available from coordinators of 11 regional groups.

For more about RFSWG, go to their website:


Corry Bregendahl, Leopold Center associate scientist, (515) 450-3682,

Arlene Enderton, Leopold Center program assistant, (641) 425-4948,

Laura Miller, Leopold Center communications, (515) 294-5272,

Jessica Burtt Fogarty, RFSWG Assistant Coordinator, (319) 333-2522,