Organizations, citizens share future visions for area rural communities

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre in Marquette played host to a rural communities forum April 8 that brought together growing Northeast Iowa organizations and local citizens to discuss everyone’s future vision for the area.

The forum was one of several held throughout Northeast Iowa in the last few weeks that featured presentations from the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, the Iowa Food Hub and Winneshiek Energy District.

“When you get in a room of people, you find we’re all pretty connected,” said Stratis Giannakouros, assistant director of Luther College’s Center for Sustainable Communities, who helped facilitate the conversation. By highlighting the things people are already doing, everyone can look toward what else can be done, he added.

The first organization to present, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative (FFI), is in its seventh year of implementation. It operates in the six-county area of Howard, Chickasaw, Winneshiek, Fayette, Allamakee and Clayton Counties, working to help “all people experience, celebrate, and promote healthy, locally-grown food, and abundant opportunities for physical activity and play.”

FFI is most well-known for its school wellness and outreach programming. The group has been involved at MFL MarMac, helping students learn about and try new, locally-grown, fresh foods. Service members have also helped with the school garden.

In addition, FFI has worked with the early childhood programs in the region, encouraging caregivers and parents to provide health-promoting foods and active play options for kids. They’ve created several Safe Routes to School programs and encourage people to use the natural environment for physical activity, play and transportation.

They also work to ensure the availability and affordability of local foods to area communities and schools. Last year, shared Haleisa Johnson, who works with the early childhood part of the program, there was a 67 percent increase in local food purchases by schools. The sale of local food increased over  $1 million.

“Know what you’re putting in your body,” said Johnson. “Local is a close as you can get it, whether it’s from my backyard, your backyard, the farmer down the road or the neighbor who sells eggs.”

“We want to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” she added.

Teresa Wiemerslage with the Iowa Food Hub also spoke at the forum. The organization, she said, works to create opportunities for new and existing farmers to engage in the local food system.

“We look at the local demand, what people are looking for, and how farmers can match that,” she said. “We work with the farmers to access those markets so they don’t have to do it alone.”

Like a grain elevator or livestock barn, it gets farmers’ products out there, Wiemerslage said, noting that Northeast Iowa is at the center of 35 million people, with a market stretching from Minneapolis to Chicago to Des Moines. Last year, the Iowa Food Hub saw $330,000 in sales. 

“It’s not just economics, but a social mission,” she said. In the future, the Food Hub would like to see more beginning farmers, more wealth spread among farmers, more local foods in schools and more purchasing of local foods and the creation of jobs as a result, she added.

Rounding out the speakers was MFL MarMac graduate Kayla Koether, with the Winneshiek Energy District, which she said works to pioneer and mainstream locally-led sustainable energy.

“Local organizations are the missing link to owning and creating more efficient energy,” she said.

Koether said the Winneshiek Energy District helps with energy and climate planning, looking at peoples’ energy use, whether in their homes or even on farms.

“We look at the whole farm, not just lights, but the landscape, gas usage, fertilizer and grain drying operations,” she noted. “There are a lot of opportunities to save money and install renewables.”

Koether said she’d like to see these ideas spread to other area counties.

“It’s one way to keep money here and it creates jobs and vibrancy for young people who are looking to come back here,” she said.

Expanding these and the other groups’ ideas and promoting all the area has to offer was the vision many had for the future when those in attendance conversed following the presentations.

“People have to realize what’s in Iowa,” shared former state representative Roger Thomas. 

“When we’re home, we don’t always notice what’s good,” added Eric Nordschow. “We have to be better at showing the features and be more of a destination, not just rural communities people move away from.”

That involves changing the dialogue, Koether said. When students move away to get an education, encourage them to return with those newfound skills.

“Tell them things here need to change and you have the good skills that could be useful here,” she said.

In order to attract younger people back to the area, she said communities should work to offer more spaces to be active and recreate. More local businesses and commerce would also be helpful.

“It’s not that hard for places like Marquette to meet those needs,” Giannakouros said, concluding the evening. “The area has those things that are natural assets. It’s not such a stretch.”

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