Farm to ISU: Helping Iowa State University Dining Staff Understand and Grow the Local Food Purchasing Program

Final Report for GNC08-089

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2008: $9,132.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Shashi Sathisan-Nambisan
Iowa State University
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Project Information


At the start of 2007, Iowa State University’s dining services turned a new page by creating the “Farm to ISU” program to increase its purchases of local, sustainable, and organic food to 35 percent ($2.1 million) by 2012. The program coordinator’s main task has been making connections between ISU Dining staff, farmers, and sustainable agriculture organizations. The goal of this project was to increase the knowledge and resource base of ISU Dining staff in order to foster an institutional culture around, and program ownership of, Farm to ISU, thereby helping ISU Dining grow the program to its 2012 goal. Creating a program that is successful will make sure that farmers in central Iowa are economically viable and will depend on good relationships between ISU Dining and farmers.


In the spring of 2007 Iowa State University’s dining services turned a new page by creating a program to increase its purchases of local, sustainable, and organic food to 35 percent ($2.1 million) by 2012. ISU Dining hired Sue DeBlieck to spearhead the initiative with a grant from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. The Farm to ISU program promotes sustainable (Food Alliance certified) and organic (USDA certified) foods, but the program and this project mainly focused on local (agricultural products that can be traced to a farm within 250 miles of ISU) foods.

ISU Dining operates eight cafes, three residential dining halls, three catering operations, a food court, numerous vending machines, and five convenience stores. Altogether there are over 50,000 transactions a day that customers make at these venues. Based on such high volumes of food purchased by ISU Dining ($6 million each year) there exists great opportunity for local producers to market their products.

The Farm to ISU coordinator’s main role has been a liaison between representatives of farmer organizations, sustainable agriculture researchers, farmers, and ISU Dining staff. The farmer organizations and researchers are put in communication with ISU Dining staff to help dining staff understand that there are other efforts supporting the growth of the local food system (in terms of increasing farm production and keeping farms viable). Additionally, farmers are linked with ISU Dining staff, both so that farmers can learn about ISU Dining’s needs and obstacles, and so that staff can learn about the realities of running a farm business. ISU Dining has held five meetings with farmers to describe what the guidelines for selling to the institution are and to also give farmers a chance to see where food is delivered and to eat in a dining hall. These connections have created trust between farmers and ISU Dining, helping the program expand. Two of the main challenges in the coordination of the program have been developing lasting relationships with fruit and vegetable growers and creating awareness and appreciation of local food among ISU Dining staff. Since farmer organizations from the steering committee have been helping farmers to work with ISU Dining on the first challenge, the goal of this project to tackle the second challenge of building ownership of the program among ISU Dining staff.

When the Farm to ISU program began, it had great support from the ISU Dining Director, farmer organizations, and sustainable agriculture researchers, but it had little backing from the ISU Dining staff. As the project gained momentum, it began to gain approval from ISU Dining staff, especially from the food buyers. The produce and meat buyers have been very successful in finding local products and sourcing a large amount (over 35,000 apples were purchased from one local apple producer in October and November of 2007). It is also important to make sure that dining hall, café, catering and food court managers and chefs also understand the importance of local food systems because they interact with the customers and utilize the foods. The underlying assumption is that with more knowledge and support at the beginning of the local foods project, ISU Dining staff will be able to grow and maintain the Farm to ISU program in the future without grant support.

Universities and colleges across the United States are featuring local foods on their menus. State institutions are sourcing local foods; the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls features local foods in daily meals and at special events, and six University of Wisconsin campuses have farm to university programs. Private colleges are also increasing purchases of local food; Oberlin College in Ohio supports local producers who utilize fair labor practices and Bates College in Lewiston, Maine joined their local food initiative with a composting program. The distances that colleges and university dining services use to define local food varies, but the idea is similar – source seasonal food from farmers and support food businesses in the area (i.e. meat lockers, bakers and cheese-makers).

SARE and other organizations have funded a variety of local food programs that 1) research the potential markets for farmers and find potential producers for institutions; and 2) educate the farmers and institutions about how to work together. For example, in 2007 SARE funded the “Appalachian Grown Farm to School Project” with the following objectives:
1. Research component: Is there enough production and is there a market for this food?
2. Educational component: Training for farmers and school nutritionists to build program

That same year SARE also funded the project “Building the skills: Strengthening farm-to-school relationships, strengthening communities” which had the objective of training local organizations to help farmers sell to institutions. The proposed project for Farm to ISU, while similar to the other educational programs, will be distinctive because the focus is on changing the institutional culture and program ownership of the staff of a very large institution. It will compliment continued research and education about local food purchasing policies and serve as a case study for other farm to college programs.

Project Objectives:

The goal of this project was to increase the knowledge and resource base of ISU Dining staff in order to foster an institutional culture around, and program ownership of, Farm to ISU. The short-term outcome was an assessment of ISU Dining staff needs for, and interest in growing and maintaining the program. The intermediate-term outcomes were to 1) creation of a diverse regional farm to college dining program group, and 2) increased awareness of the value and importance of local food systems among ISU Dining staff.

The long-term objectives were to grow and maintain the Farm to ISU program which will ensure the economic viability of local farms, foster community by connecting farmers and the dining staff, and increase environmental quality. Local, diversified, small and mid-size farms will have a greatly expanded market with a large institution like Iowa State University buying products from them. Purchasing from such farms will help ensure that local farmland is neither consolidated nor suburbanized.


Materials and methods:

As the Farm to ISU program approached the beginning of its second year, it was apparent that more knowledge and confidence, encouraged through new methods, were needed on the part of the ISU Dining staff. The assumption is that with more information about the benefits of serving local food, dining staff will be more supportive of farm to cafeteria programs. A year and a half after the beginning of Farm to ISU, a mid-stream study using quasi-experimental design was implemented. In a six-month period of time, ISU Dining staff completed a pre-intervention survey, participated in activities that created dialog and educated staff, and filled out the survey instrument at the conclusion of the research period.

1. Pre-survey sample

In August 2008, two hundred surveys were given to ISU Dining merit and full time staff in each of the three dining halls and given to managers of other dining locations (i.e. cafes, convenience stores, catering division, bakery, and administration). One hundred and fifteen surveys were returned (58% response rate).

2. Pre-post intervention survey instrument

The survey consisted of five sections: familiarity with Farm to ISU and attitudes about food in general (five questions), attitude statements about the Farm to ISU program (eleven questions), perceived benefits of local foods (sixteen questions), level of interest given a list of food topics (fourteen questions), and personal information. Questions utilized multiple choice options, five-point Likert scales (1=no benefit/strongly disagree, 5=strong benefit/strongly agree), and a ten-point Likert scale (1=no interest at all, 10=great amount of interest).

3. Intervention and post survey

An awareness program for the staff was created after the initial data collection. Three monthly Farm to ISU informational posters were sent to dining managers to post in staff break rooms; the posters each outlined a different aspect of Farm to ISU. For example, the December flier had information about the sustainable-certified foods that ISU Dining had procured and data from referenced studies on local food and subsequent impact of use on the local economy.

In addition to fliers, a presentation program was developed for two staff development workshops in January 2009. Both presentation programs consisted of a local food guest speaker, tasting of local grass-based milk, and a short lecture on the program. The lecture included information about the benefits of local, organic, and sustainable foods, student demand for the products, and the challenges identified in program implementation. Presentation programs were held at two ISU Dining staff training workshops in January 2009. After the presentations the dining services staff completed the survey and then tasted Picket Fence milk. Ninety-six Surveys were completed and collected at the end of the January workshops.

4. Additional presentation to dining staff

Another presentation on food initiatives was provided for ISU Dining staff in June 2009. David Schwartz and Marissa Grossman from the Real Food Challenge presented information to fifteen dining service staff. The speakers introduced the term “real food” – food that truly nourishes communities, producers, consumers and the earth – and led the group in a discussion about aspects of campus food initiatives beyond local foods and the connections between multiple issues (i.e. how organic food is good for the environment and safer for farm workers). The guest speakers also provided information about the real food calculator, a tool for tracking purchases of local, humane, fair, and ecologically-sound food.

5. Regional farm to college support

To provide more support for the dining staff and to connect the Midwest region, the coordinator had planned to bring together a diverse group of colleges and universities for an annual meeting. This meeting was not convened because another initiative to bring campuses together around the issue of sustainability was held in the spring of 2009. After conversations by phone, the state universities in Iowa gathered twice to discuss sustainability in the food services and residential living department. Topics of discussion included local food purchasing, composting waste, going “tray-less”, and facility energy audits.

Research results and discussion:
1. Presentations to staff

The use of the two intervention methods – presentation and informational fliers – provided different avenues for staff to explore the issue of local foods. The three monthly fliers that were posted in dining services offices gave the staff a chance to read about Farm to ISU and discuss it among themselves. The presentation provided information about Farm to ISU and “real food” as well as making space for the staff to ask questions. The questions ranged from queries about organic certification programs and the presence of chemicals in foods, to an inquiry about how much local food ISU Dining is purchasing at the time. Kitchen staff commented on the challenges they faced processing local vegetables, which are smaller than conventional counterparts. Dining services staff provided positive feedback after the presentation. On evaluations for the day of staff training, multiple staff wrote that they enjoyed the Farm to ISU presentation.

2. Survey of dining services staff

Profile of Respondents
For both survey sets, the average amount of time that surveyed staff had worked for ISU Dining was 9.4 years. As for the staff’s position at ISU Dining, the majority of respondents were production, service and general staff; close to a third were management staff.

Knowledge about Farm to ISU
The first section of the survey used questions about existing knowledge of respondents toward the Farm to ISU program, and allowed for multiple answers. For the first question, over half of the respondents in August identified local foods (90%), food from family farms (70%), certified organic food (54 %), food from local businesses (52%), sustainable certified food (43 %), and fair trade food (29%) as foods promoted by the program. There appeared to be increased awareness among staff based on results from the January 2009 post-survey and a higher percentage of the staff marked multiple answers (n=84 of 96, 87.5%) when asked what foods the Farm to ISU program promoted than in August 2008 (n=88 of 115, 76.5%). All items were identified by a majority of respondents in January as foods promoted by Farm to ISU.

For the second question, how the staff came to know about Farm to ISU, most of them had heard about the program from other dining staff. The third question asked, “how familiar are you with the Farm to ISU program?” Figure 2 shows a comparison in levels of familiarity with Farm to ISU of respondents for August and January survey periods. There was an increase in the amount of staff who felt “very familiar” with the program and a decrease in the percent of respondents who considered themselves “not familiar” with the program.

Opinions about Food and Farm to ISU
The fourth question of the survey asked “what does the term organic mean to you?” and allowed for people to select multiple answers. Three-fourths of staff who answered the question marked two or more answers in August 2008; the percentage increased to 80% after the presentations in January 2009. During both survey periods, those who chose only one answer most frequently specified “no antibiotics and/or growth hormones” (44% in August, 31% in January) and “no petroleum-based chemicals used” (30% in August, 38% in January). Responses to the organic prompt are as follows: price premium (17% in August, 44% in January), no chemicals used (60% in August 84% in January), certified by the Department of Agriculture (36% in August, 60% in January), no genetically modified organisms (56% in August, 75% in January), and no antibiotics or growth hormones (77% in August, 84% in January). Other comments included “no chemicals,” “no pesticides, natural fertilizer,” “grown naturally,” “healthy, earth friendly,” “higher price”, and “no pesticides/chemicals”.

The survey also asked staff to rate their opinions about the Farm to ISU program and its challenges and opportunities using a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = no benefit, 5 = strong benefit. The statements that had the highest average were “Preparing and procuring local food does take more time, but it is worth it” (3.31 in August, 3.92 in January) and “ISU Dining needs more marketing materials to promote Farm to ISU” (3.22 in August, 3.52 in January).

In August, the statement about ISU Dining not being able to find enough of the foods had a high mean rating of agreement (many staff agreed with the statement), however many staff also did not know the answer (one fifth of staff surveyed answered “don’t know”). The statements that had the lowest mean ratings of agreement (people disagreed with most often) were “Technical skill constraints (i.e., cooking skills) restrict preparation of local foods,” (2.18) “There is not sufficient support from the ISU community (students, staff, faculty, etc…) for purchasing local foods,” (2.21) and “Local food programs only make sense for small institutions and ISU Dining is too complex” (2.23).

In January the same three prompts still had low mean ratings of agreement although they were all slightly higher than the averages in August. The lowest mean, 2.36, occurred for the statement about local foods only making sense for small institutions. The phrase about not having sufficient support from the ISU community had the low mean rating of agreement of 2.67 and technical skill constraints had a mean of 2.84 (slightly higher than the average for the statement about facility constraints, 2.83).

The next question asked about staff perceptions of the relative benefits of ISU Dining purchasing locally-grown or processed foods rather than conventional products. This question also utilized a five point scale (1 = no benefit, 5 = strong benefit). The statements with the highest mean in August (highest perceived benefit) were “aid to local and Iowa economies” (4.55 in August, 4.52 in January) and “help family farms” (4.51 in August, 4.52 in January. The statements perceived to have the lowest benefit, with the lowest means, were “less expensive food” (3.42 in August, 3.01 in January) and “greater variety of food” (3.53 in August, 3.63 in January).

Interest in Food Topics
When asked about their interest in food topics, the staff surveyed in August and January were most interested in how local food can preserve family farms, the effects of local food on the environment, and the health benefits of foods. The highest mean ratings of interest on a scale from one to ten (ten being a great amount of interest and one being no interest at all) were for the following prompts: “how food can preserve family farms and farmland” (8.08 in August, 7.98 in January), “environmental impacts of food production” (7.99 in August, 7.98 in January) and “nutritional value and health benefits of foods” (7.96 in August, 8.14 in January). On both instances staff were surveyed, they were least interested in the topic prompt “meeting farmers” (5.89 in August, 6.44 in January); few staff answered this question possibly because it was the last question. Interest was also low for the distance the ISU Dining food travels from production site to plate (6.12 in August, 6.66 in January).

[To see the figures associated with this report, please contact the NCR-SARE office at]

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:
  • Results from this study were provided to the Farm to ISU steering committee, and presented at the Farm to Cafeteria 2009 Conference (Portland, OR), Midwest National College and University Food Service Conference (Milwaukee, WI), and at Iowa State University

    The study manuscript was submitted to the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition for publication, it has not yet been published (see attached)

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Findings from the pre- and post- intervention surveys suggest there were changes in staff perceptions with regards to Farm to ISU and local foods in general between August 2008 and January 2009. The level of awareness of dining staff increased and their attitudes toward local foods and Farm to ISU became more positive.

The pre- and post-surveys revealed that most staff thought that ISU Dining could handle increasing its purchases of local foods and were interested in learning more about them. Dining staff recognized food as being important to human health and were curious about the nutritional benefits of local foods. While the attitudes were positive, the knowledge about the details of Farm to ISU and organic foods were low in the pre-survey. The majority of staff understood organic as mainly pertaining to the use of antibiotics and hormones and were unclear about other aspects of organic food.

The post-survey revealed a rise in attitudes toward Farm to ISU and in addition showed expanded knowledge about the program. Staff appeared to have a greater level of understanding for organic foods - the number of staff who chose more than one answer for the organic question increased. Overall there was an increase in positive attitudes toward the benefits of local foods (averages increased from August to January) and few of the staff (6%) felt that they were unfamiliar with the program. After the intervention, dining staff showed enthusiasm for learning more about local foods and the desire to use them so as to support local economies, farmers, and the environment.

The growth of interest in the local foods purchasing program has made it easier for the program coordinator position to continue. This fall, a new student took on that position through a grant from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and support from ISU Dining.


Areas needing additional study

  • Study on the effects of increased knowledge and skills of dining staff, and subsequent impacts on program success is needed

    A study of college local food initiative success rate in varying circumstances (i.e., student vs. administration-initiated programs)

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.