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Local Food Systems and Rural Development

Octoberfest in Corbin, KY with local food vendors and crafters. Photo courtesy of Downtown Corbin

Local food systems in rural communities can provide much more than just access to high quality food, food systems are linked to the economic vitality, sustainability and health of communities. The Iowa State University Community Design Lab produced an “Agricultural Urbanism” toolkit for revitalizing local food systems in order to create resilient communities, promote social equity and build financial sustainability. Don’t let the “urbanism” title fool you, agricultural urbanism is a process which can be used in cities and towns of any size across America–the key idea is integrating food systems and agriculture into the planning, design, and social fabric of communities. The Agricultural Urbanism Toolkit highlights pilot projects at multiple scales that use creative design solutions for local food systems.

What is a local food system? It is a system in which food is produced, processed and distributed near its point of consumption. The geographic proximity of producer and consumer can enhance the economic, social and environmental health of a place by reducing transportation costs and energy, increasing equity in access to high quality food and by prioritizing economic support of local producers.

Many rural communities have already begun to see the benefits resulting from agricultural urbanism tactics like farmers’ markets, food trucks, and community gardens that encourage and sustain agricultural business activities and improve local food system accessibility. The following examples in Corbin, Kentucky and Postville, Iowa highlight two such places that are implementing agricultural urbanism. 

Corbin, KY Whitley County Farmers’ Market

Photo courtesy of Downtown Corbin

Corbin, Kentucky (pop 7,368) has seen substantial downtown revitalization since local entrepreneurs, with support from the federal Local Foods, Local Places program opened a farmers’ market on a vacant lot on Main Street. In a recent Local Food, Local Places video business owner and director of Downtown Corbin, Andy Salmons, describes how the market spurred neighborhood excitement about the possibilities for downtown. Bringing fresh food and local farmers onto Main Street fostered relationships among community members, local producers and local businesses. A resident can walk into a local restaurant on Main Street and eat freshly picked tomatoes alongside the farmers who grew them. These relationships expand the potential for further partnerships, and support community revitalization. Corbin’s market also serves as a mini business incubator supporting local artisans and farmers as they develop concepts into fully-fledged businesses. As a result of increased business activity and spending, Salmons estimates that the vacancy rate on Main Street has dropped from 40% to under 5%. See Andy Salmons' recent blog post based on the Corbin experience, 22 Steps to Start a Farmers' Market , for more details on how small towns can start their own farmers' markets.  

Farmers’ markets are excellent community settings that support farm and food business, expand retail and job opportunities, increase accessibility to high quality products, support an active community life and spur investment. Recent research has shown that markets stimulate local economies and return more than three times as much of their revenue to the local economy than their larger chain store competitors. Markets and related programming support locations as desirable destinations that draw users in and result in benefits like spillover spending at neighboring businesses and increased civic activity as residents and visitors interact. 

The Postville Community Garden in Postville, Iowa 

School gardens are another example of local food production which create spaces for learning and community development. Gardens add aesthetic value to place, provide a setting for social interaction and encourage nutritional and physical activity for youth. The Postville Community Garden in Postville, Iowa (pop 2,176) has been in operation since 2011 and has fourteen raised beds and tomato cages. School children from the Postville School Garden Club tend to the garden alongside Master Gardener volunteers. In the fall of 2013, the students and their supervisors harvested over 2,000 pounds of food and sold 900 pounds into the Postville Community School District hot lunch program. The garden teaches students about healthy lifestyles and techniques for cultivating, harvesting, and preparing fresh food while also providing nutritious produce for the school's cafeteria. In addition, the garden provides added aesthetic value and beautification for the neighborhood.

These are just a couple of examples of communities creating settings that value and encourage the integration of local food into the places they live and work. A recent report  by the USDA provides a more in depth analysis of the benefits and challenges of implementing local food systems in the United States. Strong local food systems enhance community health and economy and benefit communities by stimulating additional business activity within the local economy, improving business skills and opportunities, spurring consumer spending at other businesses, encouraging healthier food choices, and increasing programming and activities which draw people to places.