Eat Greater Des Moines

Face of a Food Champion: Jim Zaffiro

Jim Zaffiro, Professor of Political Science and Coordinator of Global Sustainability Education at Central College in Pella, is acting as an unofficial local food coordinator for Marion County. He sees himself and Central College as connectors, forging links between people to create a more just food system.

Jim Zaffiro (front row; second from left) and Mary Stark (front row; far right) led a Summer 2014 Upward Bound course at Central. [Photo contributed by Liz Vande Kieft.]

“My goal is, first of all, to raise awareness among more people about the benefits—economic benefits, health benefits and community-building benefits—of local food and to get them involved in that issue, whether by purchasing local food, growing it or just knowing about it.”

He recalls attending a Regional Food System Working Group (RFSWG) meeting and seeing a color-coded map of Iowa showing the counties where RFSWG groups were working. “Marion County was blank,” he says. “I took that as a challenge.”

Zaffiro already was highly involved in local food production and education. His wife, Louise, is an organic vegetable producer at Prairie Roots Farm near Otley. Jim acts as a volunteer helper for the Pella Farmers Market manager and is co-manager of the student organic garden on campus.

In order to learn more about local food, Zaffiro chose to take a year of sabbatical dedicated to learning about and deepening connections in the local food system. “I wanted to do more than just take the academic approach,” he says. “I wanted something more hands on.”

He likened his year of sabbatical, which ended in August 2014, to what Eat Greater Des Moines does but in Pella. “A helpful thing I was able to do early on was touch base with Linda [Gobberdiel] and Aubrey [Alvarez] at Eat Greater Des Moines and get a sense of how to do this and have them help me do it.”

Zaffiro worked with community partners to inventory farms in the area and list them on the Eat Greater Des Moines website, begin the process of bringing Farm to School programs to Pella and Knoxville, and start a mobile food pantry serving families in small rural communities in the county.

He now brings all of those connections back to the college, creating opportunities for students to serve those organizations. This fall he is teaching a new senior seminar course, Food Justice, focused on issues related to food, justice and human rights. “One requirement of the course is to do a 20-hour community-based learning experience where students partner with organizations in the Des Moines area, not just to serve their clients, but to help the organizations build their capacity.”

Central College is among a handful of colleges in the country that requires students to take a course on sustainability for graduation. As a result, Central offers several courses related to food and agriculture.

Reflecting on his sabbatical, Zaffiro observes, “It’s been a very interesting year for me to learn about something that I thought I knew a lot about, but looking at the on-the-ground local food scene there is a lot more under the radar. I found more problems and solutions than I ever dreamed of.”

About this story

This story was produced to accompany a report documenting the impact of the local food industry on Iowa’s economy associated with the efforts of the Regional Food Systems Working Group. Consult the statewide report: 2013 Economic Impacts of Iowa’s Regional Food Systems Working Group. For more information on the local foods work occurring in the Des Moines region, visit the Eat Greater Des Moines website.