Iowa Food Hub helps farmers, pantry clients during market closure

By Kayla Koether, ISU Extension and Outreach

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, folks across the farm and food system saw their carefully laid plans upended. In northeast Iowa, farmers market vendors worried that the Decorah Farmers Market would be postponed, hurting their sales.

Meanwhile, the Decorah Community Food Pantry wondered how its market coupon program would work if the market had to close. A new partnership was born with ISU Extension specialists using the Iowa Food Hub as a connector.

Under normal circumstances, the Iowa Food Hub (IFH) connects local institutions to wholesale quantities of local foods. As the pandemic began to unfold, Hannah Breckbill, an IFH board member and market farmer, asked if the hub could help farmers sell their product online during the pandemic. Partnering with the Decorah Farmers Market, the hub created an online marketplace to facilitate online purchases, delivery and curbside pick-up.

Adapting the process
Soon after, the market decided to delay opening for a month. Pantry director Carol Hemesath and board members Georgie Klevar and Steven Zittergruen wanted to ensure local foods for their clients. In normal years, they run a coupon program. It allows their clients to buy directly from farmers at the local farmers market. The pantry then reimburses farmers for the coupons.

Organizers worried that with the market closed, the pantry wouldn’t be able to issue farmers market coupons to its clientele.  And without the coupons, farmers market vendors would lose another source of income.

Carol, Steven and Georgie decided to try buying directly from farmers and packing fresh produce in their customers’ bags. Georgie began to call through a long list of market vendors. She quickly realized the challenge of sourcing diverse produce from multiple farms with enough quantity for their needs.
Boxes of vegetables on pallet.

Luckily, one farmer told her that IFH already worked closely with growers through its online market and wholesale channels. The hub had the capacity to support the food pantry with planning, aggregation and product knowledge to streamline the process.

Making it work
As a result, the Decorah Food Pantry and the Iowa Food Hub started a new collaboration. IFH worked with market growers to learn their projected availability of produce. Then they laid out a schedule to provide a diverse vegetable mix to food pantry clients and ensure that farmers could fill orders and deliver the products. Market farmers retained the higher-value sales that normally would have been facilitated by coupons at the in-person market.

For 10 weeks in May and June, the Iowa Food Hub sold 100 units of vegetables to the pantry. Working with seven farms, the project provided salad mix, head lettuce, snow peas, asparagus, carrots, green garlic, spring onions, radishes and spinach. The pantry purchased a total of $2,650 in local food for its clients.

During the delayed market opening, this project helped provide farmers an outlet for their produce. And it allowed the pantry to provide healthy, local produce to its northeast Iowa clients. ISU Extension and Outreach field specialist Teresa Wiemerslage and I worked closely with both partners throughout.

The partnership also supported other area pantries. Luther College Farm had

spinach and lettuce to donate in quantities larger than the Decorah pantry could use. The Food Hub arranged transport for the greens to Calmar. Its driver also took greens to West Union and Fayette on the hub’s existing wholesale route.

Classic win-win
“Our partnership with the Iowa Food Hub during May and June is a classic example of a win-win community effort,” said Geogie Klevar, vice president of the Decorah Food Pantry Board. “Our clients received fresh, local nutritious produce. The growers had a place to sell their produce. And our costs were partially covered by a grant from the Winneshiek County Community Foundation.”

Now that the farmers market has re-opened in person, the pantry has issued coupons for their program. So their clients can once again shop for their produce. But the partnership between IFH and the Decorah Food Pantry helped the two organizations understand each other’s needs, resources and capacity. Working together built relationships and knowledge that will serve as a strong foundation for future collaborations. Partnerships like this one can help meet community needs through these challenging times.