Date of this Version
Published in: Food and Poverty: Food Insecurity and Food Sovereignty among America’s Poor, ed. Leslie Hossfeld, E. Brooke Kelly, & Julia Waity. (Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2018), pp 230-244.
Story County (estimated population 92,406 in 2013) lies in the heart of central Iowa, a state renowned for its remarkable agricultural productivity. Iowa leads all states for production of corn, soybean, and hogs. Revenues from agricultural products in Iowa total more than $30 billion annually according the 2012 Agricultural Census (USDA-NASS 2014). This productivity stems from a favorable natural and political environment. The temperate climate, productive soils, and gentle topography are ideal for our production system of commodity agriculture facilitated by federal policies, which include subsidized crop insurance and commodity payments (Horrigan, Lawrence, and Walker 2002). Despite this productivity and political support for commodity production, a very small amount of acreage in Iowa produces food crops such as fruits and vegetables. Within Story County, the amount of cropland dedicated to fruit, vegetable, and nut production per one thousand residents is 2.4 acres, compared to 3.7 acres statewide, which is much lower than the US average of 32 acres per one thousand residents (ISUEO 2014). Paradoxically, in this land so perfectly suited for agriculture, there is an increasing demand for food assistance. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (ISUEO) estimates 16,366 people live in poverty in Story County, a 20.1 percent poverty rate, compared to a statewide average of 12.2 percent (2014). ISUEO further estimates that 15.2 percent of Story County residents are food insecure, representing nearly 14,000 individuals. Comparatively, the statewide rate is 12.7 percent (ISUEO 2014). Compounding the problem, 45 percent of people who are food insecure in Story County do not qualify for direct government assistance because their income is above the economic threshold set for federal food assistance, and so they depend on charitable efforts to meet their needs. According to Feeding America’s statistics, Story County is the most food insecure county in Iowa (Gundersen, Engelhard, and Waxman 2015). The juxtaposition of a productive agricultural system with persistent hunger and need for food assistance is widely apparent in Story County and has inspired community-based efforts to address food needs. Through this chapter, we analyze the work of Food at First (FAF), a nonprofit that has emerged in response to the need for food assistance in Story County. Their work addresses the food needs of Story County residents by providing a daily free meal program and market as well as the recent development of a community garden. We illustrate the benefits of the FAF effort dedicated to building community-based solutions to hunger and food insecurity through a form of food democracy. We also explore key challenges associated with doing this work, including pragmatic issues of retaining and engaging volunteers. Further, we examine limitations of this model by exploring the underlying causes of food insecurity and how this organization contests as well as perpetuates a neoliberal model of food assistance. This neoliberal focus emphasizes individual responsibility and corporate charitable donations rather than collective, and/or government-level, responsibility for community food insecurity. We hope to raise important questions about how this community-driven work critically improves food security and a broader sense of community while still falling short of addressing poverty and inequality, the underlying reason for food insecurity in Ames and across the country.