“Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” Mahatma Gandhi once said. One Iowa woman is trying to do just that.
As Sonia Kendrick worked towards her agronomy degree at Iowa State University, she became aware of a disturbing paradox in her home state. Although Iowa is best known for being an agricultural superpower that feeds the world, an increasing number of Iowans – one in eight adults and one in five children – go to bed hungry each night. An even greater number are what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “food insecure,” meaning they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food.
“There are 25,000 people in Linn County and 400,000 in Iowa who don’t know with certainty where their next meal is coming from,” Kendrick said.
To make matters worse, although Iowa tops the nation in the production of corn, soybeans, pork and eggs and is in the top 10 in the production of nearly every other agricultural commodity, it imports more than 85 percent of its food, and most of it travels on average 1,500 miles to get to Iowans’ plates.
“We have a transportation-based food system,” Kendrick said. “As fuel prices rise, food prices rise. If we are to weather the oncoming increase in fuel prices, we have to start doing things differently.”
Taking Gandhi’s words to heart, Kendrick decided to do what she could to solve Iowa’s hunger problem. In 2011, the Afghanistan war veteran founded Feed Iowa First during her summer break from college. The nonprofit organization’s mission is twofold: to grow fresh produce for Iowa’s food banks and to assist landless vegetable farmers in qualifying for beginning farmer loans.
In order to accomplish Feed Iowa First’s objectives, Kendrick plans to create 500 acres of urban farms in Linn County by partnering with churches and corporations that have available green space. She said such land is in plentiful supply. According to an Iowa State survey, there are 800 acres of urban green space on property owned by Cedar Rapids-area churches alone.
Kendrick said that conventional ideas about land use must change given current projections for a 70 percent increase in world food production by 2050 in order to feed nine billion people.
“We need to be capturing and using every available acre of space,” she said. “We have to utilize land that otherwise just gets mowed.”
In 2011, Feed Iowa First started with one acre of donated land and produced over one ton of vegetables for a local food bank. By 2013, the organization had increased its production to five or six acres of urban gardens.
Current production plots include 8 raised beds of 2,000 asparagus plants on a vacant lot owned by Horizons, A Family Service Alliance, and 30 100-foot rows of tomatoes and onions on land at Rockwell Collins’ C Avenue complex in Cedar Rapids. The harvests will be donated to Horizons Meals on Wheels, which provides ready-made meals to seniors and disabled persons. GE Capital and several area churches also have donated land on which Feed Iowa First volunteers are growing cherry tomatoes, onions, collard greens and watermelon for area food banks.
Kendrick said another challenge to combating hunger in the state will be a lack of farmers to grow all the produce that will be needed.
“The average age of a farmer is 59,” she said. “We need new farmers desperately.”
Yet, she said, there are many obstacles faced by would-be vegetable farmers. Lending institutions generally will not loan money to new farmers, and to qualify for a low-interest loan through the Farm Service Agency (FSA), a prospective borrower must be able to show three years of farm management experience. Because current vegetable producers typically cannot afford to hire farm managers at a living wage, it is nearly impossible for beginning farmers to meet FSA lending requirements if they do not already own land.
Through Feed Iowa First, Kendrick hopes to help aspiring farmers gain the needed experience to qualify for FSA loans by hiring them to manage the organization’s network of urban farms and by paying them a living wage through grants.
Kendrick eventually would like to see the Feed Iowa First model put to work in other communities. But for now her focus is on Linn County.
“You have to be the change you want to see in the world,” she said, paraphrasing Gandhi. “I can’t fix everything. All I can do is the best I can to fix where I’m at.”