The Linn County Food Systems Council has ambitious goals to improve Linn County’s food system from production to consumption in order to build resilient supply chains that feed the community and stimulate economic development. The council’s primary goal is to increase access to and consumption of nutritious foods by boosting the volume and diversity of food produced within the county. The first step toward accomplishing this goal was to complete a comprehensive baseline food system assessment. New Venture Advisors worked with the council to assess areas foundational to food system development to help drive change.
The Linn County food system is going through an exciting growth phase during an incredibly difficult time, presenting a wide variety of challenges and opportunities for the broader community as well as the Linn County Food Systems Council (LCFSC). As an urban county located in a predominantly rural state, Linn County is in a unique position to leverage the wealth center created by Cedar Rapids to catalyze this rapid development of the local food system. The COVID-19 pandemic as well as the recent severe derecho storm have had serious implications across the local food system, the effects of which will continue to unfold in coming years.
Partnering with New Venture Advisors
This project is the initiation of a broader goal of the LCFSC to improve Linn County’s food system from production to consumption. The assessment was developed using both primary and secondary research looking at four key areas: production, procurement, processing, and barriers to entry and expansion of businesses working within the food system. Approximately 100 stakeholders provided their perspectives through interviews and surveys. Community meetings were also planned but had to be canceled due to the pandemic. The report was published in September 2020 and is available to download from on our website.
New Venture Advisors presented a list of recommendations for Linn County that would build capacity for the local food system and act as an economic driver. The overarching goal is that, through this work, Linn County can increase food access, catalyze community engagement, and strengthen community connections.
- Hire a Food System Coordinator. A dedicated staff person will provide the capacity to drive forward the recommendations in the report and will help the council gain better perspective, cultivate diverse relationships, and build credibility as they begin to expand outside of their own organization.
- Coordinate an Educational Campaign. A targeted educational campaign on why and how to eat local will increase demand across sectors (from residents to elected officials to buyers).
- Strengthen Partnerships. Many similar organizations are serving in the same spaces in Linn County, the region, and the state. This presents an opportunity for organizational inventory, mapping, and communication to leverage efforts in sustaining the local food system through cross-sector collaboration.
- Utilize Investment, Funding, and Taxes. Municipalities can lead by example through local food system investment, financial incentives, and collaboration on grants.
- Reinforce Existing Initiatives. Any new efforts can build on the existing initiatives happening in Linn County to honor the work done to date and leverage established partnerships, from the Dows Farm Project and the adopted procurement clause to the activities developed through Healthy Hometowns and food recovery initiatives.
- Support New Markets. There are several avenues that support market growth opportunities for local farmers. Specifically, this is an opportunity for the county to lead by example in establishing a workplace community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and implementing the procurement clause for all sponsored events.
To support Linn County in conveying the Local Food Assessment, New Venture Advisors created a companion interactive Story Map.
The assessment process surfaced an incredible number of opportunities for improving Linn County’s food system from production to consumption. With the leadership of the LCFSC, support from the Linn County Board of Supervisors, and the hiring of a dedicated local food system coordinator, the recommendations can be translated into action. Ultimately, it will be up to the LCFSC and staff to develop an action plan with SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals tied to a clear timeline and duties assigned to specific members of the council.
Although the impact of COVID-19 depleted the funds available to put towards local food program this year (2021), county staff and the LCFSC have been working to implement some of the “low hanging fruit” opportunities identified in the assessment. County staff have started a CSA program, buying directly from a local farmer. The county has also agreed to match every dollar spent by county employees up to $5,000. Those matching funds will then be donated to a local food bank that has committed to buying local produce. This is an easy win/win/win for the county and the LCFSC addressing health, food insecurity, and supporting the local food economy.
County Planning and Development staff are also actively working on writing new code to encourage and facilitate agritourism operations. Agritourism represents a secondary revenue stream for many smaller working farms, allowing them to diversify their operation and better connect local residents with the land their food comes from.
These and a number of other programs continue to support the growth and development of the local food system even as they address the challenges facing the community in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through collaboration with parallel industries such as public health, there are a greater number of funding opportunities that would enable the LCFSC to increase the project impact while building and strengthening bridges in the community. As the community looks ahead, the LCFSC can leverage this assessment to provide guidance and inspiration for building a more resilient, sustainable food system for Linn County.
Photo courtesy of Buffalo Ridge Orchard