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

Project Overview

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


  • Fruits: apples
  • Animal Products: meat


  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems


    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.

    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.