How to Fight Hunger with Local Food

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How to Fight Hunger with Local Food

Today in Greater Des Moines, we have 26 school gardens, a dozen faith gardens, 10 community gardens supported by the city, a handful of employee gardens on corporate grounds, and an immigrant/refugee garden run by Lutheran Services.


In 2009, we didn’t have much at all.

You can take any simple idea and create a revolution.  Click here for the simplest action guide you’ve ever used.

Here is how we launched a local food project 4 years ago… and how it transformed the local food and hunger movements here.

Notice how the original “Urban Farm” idea transformed into something SO much more.

UrbanFarmIdea#1 – The Initial Seed

In the winter of 2009, I trampled out of the snow and into a climate change discussion in Newton, Iowa hosted by Iowa Interfaith Power & Light.

At the door, I bumped into a friend and long-time community champion, Craig Stark (Letters, page 47).  Craig gripped my hand with intention, and struck up conversation with a gleam in his eye.  Note: I love talking to Craig Stark.

“What are you working on now, Adam?” he asked.

I  had been reading another book on permaculture and watching Will Allen videos

So, I answered, “I really want Des Moines to have an urban farm.  Like Growing Power in Chicago.”

Craig didn’t miss a beat.

“You need to meet Diana Sickles!” he said.  “She just organized a great symposium on hunger policy, and she’s a real go-getter.”

He shared her contact info.  We went into the event.

And 1 week later, Diana and I were sharing ideas over coffee at Gateway Cafe.  That’s how these things happen.

#2 – Strong Roots

I can get very myopic and focused on one thing (today it’s often Des Moines).  That was even more true 5 years ago.

Diana was a seasoned pastor, passionate about expressing her strong faith through service.

While it was clear we shared a love for Will Allen, and the difference he was making via Growing Power, I wasn’t sure we were a good fit.

Diana was talking about UN Millennial Goals, Obama’s promise, and state policy.  I just wanted to skip to the part where Will Allen came to town, we bought some land, and we started a farm.  Simple stuff, you know?

It’s not easy being 28 and thinking you know everything!

But the more I listened, the more I started to learn.  Especially about Diana’s commitment to “Ending Childhood Hunger in Des Moines by 2015.”

Will Allen’s work looks like an urban farm.  But the reason it exists is to provide healthy food (and education about that food) to the people who need it most.  In the process, he is providing work opportunities and building stronger communities.

I started to see that we could do much more than just start an urban farm.

We could galvanize a movement:

  • Healthy, local food
  • Education and access
  • Work opportunities
  • Strong communities
  • Feed hungry children
  • Combat poverty

So, that’s what we decided to do.  Not just hold an urban farm workshop.

We wanted to create an event that would spark a local food revolution… in the name of something bigger — Ending Childhood Hunger.

And it would take the whole community to make it happen.

#3 Fertile Soil

We knew we couldn’t do this alone.  So, we identified both local foodie groups and groups fighting hunger.

The beauty of bringing together 2 related, but separate, communities was that it would provide more potential for event volunteers and innovative ideas coming out of an event.

I recommend always finding at least 6 related organizations to share your idea with.  They may not all join your cause, but they’ll certainly provide you with a free education over coffee!

#4 – Fresh Water

A handful of friends from Diana’s earlier symposium made up the initial project team.  Many of them were semi-retired, so they had time to dedicate to planning and logistics.  They were all passionate about fighting hunger.  Besides Diana and I, there were:

  • Craig Stark
  • Bonnie Ekse
  • Phil Sickles, and
  • Connie Ridge

#5 – The Garden

We started by meeting at  Walnut Hills United Methodist Church.

First, they were known for hosting large events.  Second, the faith community had always led the fight against hunger in Des Moines.

Untitled2We struggled with the decision.

Walnut Hills UMC was pretty far west, and not in a low-income neighborhood.

Our rationale was as follows:

If the event was going to spark a movement, it would need to be annual.  It was our first year, so we needed to just get something started.  Walnut Hills was free (just a small fee for a staff person to spend the day there helping).  We would take our lessons learned and rotate the event in subsequent years to different target communities based on what we learned in year one.

It was a tough choice.  We all believed that serving people where they were, and including them in the conversation, was critical.

Our alternative solution was to offer scholarships and partner with social service organizations that could advertise to low-income communities and help with transportation.

Everyone was assigned a role.

  • Find a graphic designer to develop a logo/flyer (Adam)
  • Work logistics with Walnut Hills UMC (Phil)
  • Develop an attendee registration process (Bonnie/Connie)
  • Draft the agenda (Adam)
  • Start contacting speakers and workshop leaders (Diana)
  • Find a speaker to do the lunch blessing (Craig)

Assign your volunteers work.  Maintain their interest.  Make sure they feel needed, and give them a reason to come back to your second meeting.

As it was, everyone felt (and actually were) important, and knew we were all counting on them.

#6 – The Gardener

I was assigned the agenda, which made me the de-facto coordinator of the event itself.  However, Diana really ran team.

She did the heavy lifting, and really leveraged her personal relationships in the community to make things happen.

People often make 2 mistakes.

  1. They put the person with the idea in charge
  2. They make the person in charge do all the work


You need a task master, and they can’t be given very many of their own tasks.

The team members should do most of the work.  The champion should make sure everyone knows what to do, and that they have the resources to do it.  That how teams are successful.

Tips – Focus on the Possible

We knew hunger would be an emotional issue that could rally people to action.

We also knew hunger could be depressing and create apathy.  We wanted to give clear solutions so attendees could take action.

A brief outline of our agenda looked like this:

  1. Keynotes – describe hunger in Greater Des Moines, tell stories, then show what urban agriculture looks like (Educate)
  2. Panel Discussions – hear from 6 community leaders on what good things were already happening around town (Empower)
  3. Workshops – 2 rounds of workshops, people could choose to go home already involved with a group (Engage)
    • Round 1 – Community Gardens, School Gardens, Faith Gardens, Urban Farms
    • Round 2 – Food Rescue, Urban Chickens, Nutrition Integration, Farm to School
  4. Closing Mayor Frank Cownie voicing the City’s support (Belief)

Click here for our first year’s agenda (pdf).

Our blurb sent out to the community read:

Hope for the Hungry: Feeding Greater Des Moines.

Come hear from those already taking successful action in the city around urban food systems, ask the questions you always wanted to know, and attend 2 workshops of your choice that will get CONNECT you and put you into ACTION ~ at your child’s school, at your church congregation, in your neighborhood, on city land, at your local food bank, with your service organization, or in your own backyard !!

Tips – Teachers People Can Relate With

One thing we all agreed on (after lengthy discussion) was this:

If we wanted to inspire Greater Des Moines residents to take action, then we had to do our best to get as many hyper-local speakers and workshop leaders as possible.

We didn’t want anyone saying, “Yeah, that might work in Portland… but not in Des Moines.”


  • We asked Iowa food expert, Susan Roberts to keynote
  • Instead of Will Allen, we got Iowa expert Jason Grimm to talk about urban food systems design
  • On our panels, we got real garden leaders from the few successful gardens in the city
  • On our panels, we also got the food bank and food pantries to showcase their work integrating nutrition planning into local feeding programs
  • All of our workshops were taught by Des Moines natives doing the work, unless we didn’t have a program yet (like Table to Table from Iowa City, who came to talk about food rescue)

Tips – Make it Fun!

The day of the event it was freezing and almost had to cancel because of snow.

But, because we had make a concerted effort to get people excited about the event, people came out in droves.

We had over 100 attendees.  Almost every person stayed to the end.  Why?

I like to thing it was because we created something special:

  • Local guitar player, Seth Hedquist, was playing classic guitar in the morning and during all breaks.
  • We made it a pot-luck, so people brought local Iowa food to share… we had to send food home with people.
    • And with Seth on guitar, most people chose to sit on the floor in the sanctuary (there were plenty of chairs) in small groups, like summer camp.  It was an amazing feeling to see that happen.
  • Campbell’s Nutrition donated tons of healthy, organic drinks for the event… which made everyone’s day
  • Plenty of breaks were scheduled, and people could visit tables of local food and local hunger organizations from all over Greater Des Moines and Iowa
  • Alice Meyer from the local bookstore, Beaverdale Books, was set up and selling dozens of amazing books she had ordered specifically for that event
  • Vendors donated tons of great local-food prizes that we advertised would be given out in a drawing at the very end of the day.

The Fruit

2 keynote speakers, 2 discussion panels, 8 workshops, 14 sponsors, 8 exhibitors, and over 100 attendees.

As you could see from the video at the beginning of this blog, the event was a huge success.  The conference was then moved to the autumn to capitalize on momentum from the Iowa Hunger Summit.  It has been held every year since.

Click here for the 2013 brochure.

But the real success is what we see happening here every year after the conference.

  • After year 1, the Healthy Urban Food & Farming working group launched and today is known as Eat Greater Des Moines, a hub for all things local food related in the metro.
  • The Coalition in Support of Hungry Children is now tracking goals in several areas related to hunger and owns the conference moving forward.
  • DMARC has launched to connect hungry people to sites offering a meal
  • The Iowa Food Systems Council now tackles policy issues across the state
  • New and exciting partnerships are created every year.
  • Seats are always full.
  • News crews are now common.

And, what about that urban farm?

At our very first conference, Jason Grimm co-led the urban farm workshop with Ray Meylor — retired chiropractor, Isaak Walton League member, and local champion of building resilience and job skills through all things gardening.

In 2013, Ray purchased land in Ankeny, and plans are under way to launch Greater Des Moines’ first urban farm in 2014.  I can’t begin to explain how excited that makes me!

Total Time = 4 Months, Original Idea to Implementation

What do you think?  Could you bring your idea to life in your community?

Seriously… download the action guide and fill it out for your idea.

Apply these lessons to your own ideas, and share with us how it goes.



Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

Check out Adam's new book on Amazon, Audible and Kindle: Sustainable Business in Iowa.

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