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One lesson of pandemic: Local food is better

Updated: Jan 3

The Gazette

Written by Corbin Scholz

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our food system on the state and national levels.

With the pandemic’s outbreak, many Americans witnessed the breakdown of a food supply chain they had for so long depended on yet taken for granted. Last spring saw meatpacking plants temporarily close as they became hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks, dairy farmers dumping millions of gallons of milk down the drain as demand dried up, and consumers faced with empty shelves and sparse produce selections at local grocery stores.

Across the country, people turned to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms for access to the fresh, healthy food they sought, often delivered right to their doors. A CSA arrangement is much like a subscription service. Individuals pay the farm upfront to cover the production costs of fruit, vegetables and/or meat, and receive a share of its output on a recurring basis.

The pandemic opened a floodgate of interest in CSA programs that had previously been confined mostly to small-scale local food movements ̶ a silver lining in 2020s otherwise dark cloud of despair.

Despite the December rollout of the state’s vaccination program and expert predictions that the pandemic’s end is finally within sight, there are still numerous reasons why Iowans should continue to take advantage of their local CSA programs in 2021 and beyond.

For one, farming is a profession that carries a significant amount of financial risk. The unpredictability of weather, government policy, economic health, production yield and labor resources are just some of the factors that farmers must consider when their livelihood is dependent on working out on the land. When you become a CSA member, you help local farmers manage the potential risks they stand to incur.

One bad season of farming could put a farmer out of business. That danger has only increased with the devastating impacts of climate change and a global pandemic that has shaken our already fragile food system to its core. Iowa farmers know all too well that derechos and other extreme weather systems can occur without warning and result in crop losses that have the ability to bankrupt farmers.

By paying upfront into a CSA program, members allow farmers to have a stable income throughout the course of the year. They support the survival of a natural system within the construct of a larger broken system, where farmers are essential workers within the functioning of many Iowans’ daily lives but are still left without health insurance, paid time off and other essential benefits.

For those who have not joined the trend of growing their own gardens at home, CSA’s also offer another way for individuals to regain a sense of food autonomy and food sovereignty in knowing where their food comes from. It also promotes an overall safer food supply, the importance of which has been underscored by COVID-19. Limiting the number of hands that touch your food in the process of getting it from the farm to your table significantly lessens the chance for contamination — it’s a process that just makes sense when we consider what life should look like in a post-pandemic world!

Eating local food is environmentally friendly, helping to protect Iowa farmland and the future of agriculture within our state. In the United States, more than 90 percent of our fruit and nut production and nearly 80 percent of our vegetable production happens in counties threatened by development.

These statistics highlight the importance of organizations, like the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (silt.org), which works to build resilient communities through promoting diversity in Iowa’s farming landscape, economy and local food supply by permanently protecting Iowa farmland for sustainable food production through agricultural conservation easements and land donations.

Lastly, signing up for a CSA contributes to efforts to protect the health of our state’s soil. Soil health is ultimately a core element to environmental health. Healthy soils work to lessen the chance of floods, erosion and dust storms, calamities that can drastically affect everyone. And, soils packed with micronutrients are soaked up by plants and end up on our plates.

If our soil is healthy, our state is healthy and that means that Iowans are healthy, too. CSA programs are the vehicle that can take us there.

Corbin Scholz is an organic farmer and founder of Rainbow Roots Farm located five miles north of Iowa City. She is on the board of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) and is the women’s soccer coach at Iowa City High School.