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Taking local foods to the table

By Staff | Oct 23, 2009

Chef Brigida Molina chops up fresh thyme while Chef Christopher Curtis prepares a butternut squash for a special soup dish at the Tremont on Main in Marshalltown.

(Editor’s note: An effort to develop a local foods system is underway in Marshall County. If successful, it could be the model for future Iowa systems. The following is the third in a three-part series in cooperation with the Marshalltown Times-Republican.)

MARSHALLTOWN – When J.P. Howard sits down to a hot bowl of chicken noodle soup he thinks about his Aunt Liz.

“She always made the best soups,” he said. “This is nature’s elixir for what ails you.”

Growing up in Cresco, in northeast Iowa, Howard was accustomed to locally grown foods, in part thanks to his aunt who created meals with ingredients from her own gardens and livestock.

Now Howard and his wife, Jennifer, are serving up locally produced food at their trio of restaurants on Main Street.

Presenting a roast butternut squash soup, Chef Christopher Curtis is ready to serve the culinary delight at Marshalltown's Tremont On Main.

The Howards have been featuring seasonal local dishes on their white-cloth menu at the Tremont on Main, while incorporating other local ingredients and dishes at the Tremont Grille and Tremont Sports Cafe.

The regularly featured chicken noodle soup is made with the freshest and the highest quality local chicken purchased from a Mexican market in Marshalltown, Howard said.

While the couple has found great success in some local dishes, and are ready to step up a local foods menu, they need better supply and constant comparable and dependable products.

Part of this effort to meet the needs of area business owners has spun into the creation of COMIDA – an acronym for County of Marshall Investing in Diversified Agriculture – that formed with the goal of building a local foods system in the county.

Just one-tenth of a percent of Marshall County residents get their food directly from farmers – about one fourth of the national average.

A study of the potential impact of a local food system showed that if consumers bought only 15 percent of their food directly from local farms it would mean $8 million of new farm income each year, according to Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center of Minneapolis.

Another survey, this one conducted by the North Central Regional Center of Rural Development and the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce, showed that 73 percent of Marshalltown businesses would like to have more opportunities to establish stronger links with local producers.

The lack of supply has consistently been targeted as the reason local markets and restaurants don’t currently sell more locally grown food.

“We, as a county, are just getting started,” Howard said.

Even with poor weather conditions taking a hit on local farmers markets, Howard has poured his efforts into a local menu by attending area markets on a weekly basis.

“I bought everything I could, that I could use,” Howard said. “Anywhere I can find it that is close and quality, I buy it.”

Meanwhile, a rooftop garden outside of the couple’s condo at the Tremont Inn boasts fresh herbs that are incorporated into local dishes – including thyme, sage, rosemary and oregano.

A butternut squash soup with local appeal was prepared last week by utilizing another garden on 12th Street.

However, planning a consistent menu with local products necessitates high value and quality, Howard said.

“Value and quality are No. 1 and they go hand in hand,” he said. “So the products have to be the same, because the consumer demands it.”

Another struggle is price comparability, he said.

“We want to have it, but not pay five times more for it,” he said.

At the same time, they are seeing consumer demand for fresh local foods, he said.

“Food safety and food knowledge is driving this whole issue,” Howard explained. “It’s starting to mean something to people, and we listen to what they want.”

Parts of the local food system are already underway with the Entrepreneurial and Diversified Agriculture Program at Marshalltown Community College, which trains students how to develop a local food system.

The first graduates of a course for beginning farmers called “Start Your Own Diversified Farm” received their certificates in March. Ten graduates of this training course are currently renting plots and growing vegetables at the MCC farm. They have been selling their produce at farmers markets in Des Moines, but are anxious to sell directly to Marshalltown grocery stores and restaurants.

Another addition to the program is a food processing facility currently under construction on the MCC campus. The building will provide a place for farmers to prepare their produce for market.

Howard has high expectations for the MCC training course that develops new farmers and is particularly attractive to the Latino population.

“You can take that spirit and that willingness to take risk and we can find a way to help minimize their risk to get them started … That’s a huge business with the ultimate goal being to provide healthy food to our community.”

By demanding local foods, Howard sees a stronger movement toward getting nutritious foods into nursing homes, hospitals and restaurants.

“What we’re trying to get to eventually is getting better nutrition to the lower income people – that’s our task as people in the food business,” he said. “We’re supposed to feed people wonderfully and we should be passionate about it.”

Contact Abigail McWilliam at (641) 753-6611 or by e-mail at amcwilliam@timesrepublican.com.

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