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I was in Ames, Iowa, this week for the Iowa Rural Summit, a two-day event organized by the Iowa Rural Development Council.
They are a great nonprofit bringing the public and private sectors together to support small towns and agriculture areas. Building thriving rural areas is important to our food systems work at Food Tank—and it’s also deeply personal to me.
I’m from Defiance, Missouri—and proud of being from the rural Midwest. Growing up, I saw the challenges faced by rural communities first-hand, and I also was deeply affected by the stereotypes against those of us who lived “out in the country.” The lack of attention paid to rural food systems is a massive barrier, both culturally and politically, and it’s beyond time to address it.
We need a new narrative when it comes to rural, says Kathleen Merrigan, the Executive Director for the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems and the former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.
“Rural is not a monolithic thing. Rural is as different from one county, from one place, to the next,” Merrigan says. “Every part of the federal government needs to stand up and do more for rural America if we’re going to change this narrative.”
To support thriving rural areas, every part of the food system needs to recognize that people are more important than profit.
Rural areas surrounded by farms experience high levels of food insecurity. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 11 percent of people in rural areas were food insecure in 2021. Out of the counties with the highest rates of food insecurity, almost nine out of every 10 are rural, Feeding America reports—and Black residents of rural counties were 2.5 times more at risk of hunger.
The narrative of rural communities has to be about people, not profit, and I want to talk about a couple examples.
First, let’s talk broadband internet. It’s lacking in many rural communities.
Twenty-four percent of rural Americans say that access to high-speed internet is a major problem. That’s much higher than the 9 to 13 percent of people in suburban and urban areas who say the same. In total, about 6 out of every 10 people in rural America told the Pew Research Center that their level of internet service is problematic.
Good internet access is a necessity. As we’ve talked about at Food Tank before, expanding broadband internet can boost farmers’ abilities to expand into new markets, transition to more sustainable techniques, and connect with other farmers about best practices. And on the subject of food insecurity, some rural residents who are eligible for food assistance miss out on much-needed benefits because they don’t have easy access to information, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
“When we talk about tools, we often think about them as tools for work,” Ankita Raturi, Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural & Biological Engineering at Purdue University, told Food Tank. “But they’re also tools for community. This is a means for us to communicate with each other.”
So why is this still a problem?
“Where it’s not dense enough, companies aren’t interested in providing services because there’s no money to be made,” Michelle Miller, a researcher with the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Food Tank during a 2021 panel discussion.
The good news is that things are changing. An infrastructure bill signed by President Biden in 2021 dedicates US$65 billion toward expanding broadband access, and last fall, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program invested US$759 million specifically toward rural internet.
But the prioritization of profit is not just visible in technology—we can see it in the land, too.
Over the past three decades, we’ve seen cropland shift significantly from midsize farms to large-scale operations. In the late 1980s, more than half of all U.S. crop acreage was operated by midsize farms, the USDA reports. Now, that’s dropped to only about a third. Meanwhile, the proportion of acreage run by large farms has nearly tripled, jumping from 15 percent in 1987 to 41 percent in 2017.
This consolidation extracts resources from agricultural communities when what we truly need is to be reinvesting those resources back into our rural areas. The profits from farmers’ hard work should stay with the people who have the power to revitalize their communities.
“Having one or two large farms in [rural regions] doesn’t take the place of having a vibrant rural society and rural community,” said Jeff Moyer, the CEO of the Rodale Institute. “Small farms can do that—but then, again, we have to support those farms.”
I’m heartened to see so many efforts underway in rural areas to do just that. The Women, Food and Agriculture Network provides a community for women and non-binary people committed to developing a just food and agriculture system. The National Young Farmers Coalition works to address issues of land access, healthcare costs, student loan debt, and other hurdles that young farmers face. Niman Ranch’s Next Generation Foundation provides scholarships to children of farmers and ranchers who are committed to furthering their education and continuing rural enhancement.
And back to Iowa—this week on the Food Talk podcast, I spoke with Sally Worley, the Executive Director of Practical Farmers of Iowa, another great organization supporting rural livelihoods. I encourage you to listen here.
Let’s honor the people who truly power our food system. And together, let’s rewrite the narrative of rural communities.
As always, I want to be able to highlight the folks who are doing the on-the-ground work we desperately need. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share the stories of farmers, organizers, chefs, and more in your communities who are supporting our rural areas.
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