Local Foods Group to hold Iowa Regional Meeting

Senior associate director, Rich Pirog, expressed how his two decades with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University prepared him for his work in the Michigan local foods movement.

The following was originally posted on the website of the Leopold Center For Sustainable Agriculture on October 26, 2015.

NEVADA, Iowa –A pioneer in the statewide local foods movement returns to Iowa to speak about his new experiences in Michigan at the Wednesday, Nov. 4, quarterly meeting of the Regional Food Systems Working Group (RFSWG) at the Story County Extension office, 220 H Ave.

Rich Pirog, senior associate director for Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Regional Food Systems, will explore how his two decades with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University prepared him for his work in the Michigan local foods movement.

“I’ll share the exciting things we’re doing in Michigan,” said Pirog, who is making his first trip back to Iowa since he left in May 2011. “But we will spend most of the meeting discussing the questions that the group needs to consider as it moves forward. It’s important to energize local foods organizations and to have learning communities in place. When people come together, they innovate while learning from each other and they collaborate.”

In his position with the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, Pirog helped develop the Good Food Fund, a healthy food financing program that addresses low-income and rural residents’ access to locally grown foods. He also leads the Michigan Food Hub Network. Started in 2012, the network seeks to strengthen food hubs—centrally located facilities for storing, processing, distributing and marketing local and regional food products.

Lynn Heuss, program assistant for local foods at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, said RFSWG focuses on networking and professional development. The meetings attract a range of participants, including farm producers, extension staff and non-profit agencies, but she would like health-care professionals and insurance company representatives added to the mix.

“We think the partnerships would be valuable because the health component is an attractive one,” she said, adding that hospitals and insurance company cafeterias are natural outlets for foods produced within the state. Medical centers already have a burgeoning interest in local food, but Heuss thinks the hospital market has room to grow in Iowa.  

“We’ve seen more growth nationally to institutions such as hospitals and colleges,” Pirog said. “Michigan has a strong farm-to-school foods program. We’ve made significant progress in this arena.”  

Pirog was one of RFSWG’s founders in 2003, aided by a now defunct grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The group later received financial support from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, but that also has expired. The need for a new funding model is one of the challenges the group faces, he said.

“The local foods movement in Iowa is unique and innovative,” he said. “I want to reinforce the important contributions Iowa has made and encourage RFSWG in its transition. Iowa is seen as a leader in local foods. The future is very bright.”

ISU Extension and Outreach has played an important role in advancing the expanding local foods movement through educating consumers and supporting farmers, Heuss said, describing the connections as a “perfect fit.”

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