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Connecting in new ways.

CeCe Arnold, rural sociologist and director of the Rural Community Support Program of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, sees herself as a "rural yenta," saying a big part of her work is connecting people who need to talk with one another.

Recently she helped bring together local farmers and representatives from two large assisted-living facilities for elders near Ames, Iowa. The aim of their meeting was both to expand the market for area growers and to provide residents in these facilities with more healthful, tasty food.

Seven farmers met April 13 to talk with Keith Kudej, the administrator of Madrid Home Communities in Madrid, Iowa, Beth Wisecup, director of food and nutrition for the Madrid facilities, and with Sue Ernest from Bethany Manor in Story City, Iowa. Their topic: the value of offering locally grown and raised meat, vegetables and fruit in the facilities' dining rooms, where 400 or more meals a day are prepared. The meeting was held at the Prairie Rivers Resource Conservation and Development off-me in Ames

The idea began as a proposal to help seniors in these facilities deal with depression, Arnold said. "We realized the taste of fresh sweet corn would help rural Iowans remember 'back when.' It would significantly raise their quality of life to interact with nearby growers and regularly eat their fresh food. The seniors could even help husk the corn or snap the green beans. We know that mealtimes are the most important events of the day in these facilities."

Buying from local growers also means environmental and economic benefits to the community. "Local food travels an average 45 miles, but sourced nationally the distance is more than 1,500 miles. Using local foods circulates dollars in the community, providing an economic multiplier effect," Arnold said.

At the meeting, participants discussed hurdles in the way of using locally grown food in large institutions, including storage considerations and state rules for food safety.

Kudej, Madrid Home Communities CEO, said the original facility was founded in 1906. "In a way, we're coming full circle, as we used to raise our own beef and chickens in those early days.

"We don't know exactly what's available, but today we want to continue the learning process."

Farmer Ron Bartelt raises chickens and ducks near Grimes, Iowa. "We've got 2,000 broilers available at a time and can easily double that. We can offer 50 dozen eggs a week."

Doug Dodd farms four acres northeast of Boone, Iowa. He also teaches 4-H youth at the high school. "Students raising some lambs or steers can sell to these homes," he said, "giving the kids a way to see real career opportunities in agriculture. The elders can tell the youth stories about living on farms with animals when they were kids. Farming is all about relationships; my kids need to learn that. We could put up photos of the young farmers with the blue ribbons they've won on the nursing home walls. Opportunities are endless."

William Eggers and his wife grow fruit on Burr Oak Farms near Winter set, Iowa. Eggers said they can supply grapes, blackberries, blueberries, pears, cherries, apricots and plums. Their orchard consists of 700 trees, and they're planting 550 more.

"Elders might recall eating a small white peach that was available on their grandparents' farms in central Iowa. I can remember when neighbors brought these to my parents' farm in a Model T. Now we've begun growing that same peach." Eggers said he would like to do presentations for the elders about this peach and about the heirloom fruit they grow on their land.

LaVon Griffieon talked about her family farm near Ankeny, Iowa. "Our family has been farming there since 1868. Our children are the sixth generation to live on this land. We raise beef, chickens, turkeys, pigs, sheep, organic corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Our meat has no added hormones, is antibiotic-free and humanely raised."

Her family's connections with the land and Iowa history came home to her one day, she said, when she handed her mother a rib-eye steak and asked how her grandmother had prepared such a cut in the 1930s. Her mother recalled, "First, we'd go outside and hack it off the side that was hanging frozen in the tree." Griffieon assured the potential buyers that their farm's meat was no longer stored up in the elm branches.

Griffieon described taking one of their piglets to Madrid Home for a petting session with residents. "It 'sprayed' all down the hallway. The nurses said they were used to that."

Kudej said the facilities are currently using prepackaged menus approved by a dietitian and supplied by a large processed food company. He said they would probably at first incorporate local food into their menus in a limited way, then expand. "We could offer local apples and pears for snacks, then for a Sunday dinner feature a typical rural farm dinner from the 1950s. The farmers' presentations would become a social activity for the residents. What's more, our 240 employees will be watching what we're doing, expanding the markets even further."

The farmers, administrators and nutritionist discussed possibilities for a central broker to coordinate between farmers and buyers.

Griffieon summed up the meeting: "We're building something here."

By RICH HEFFERN

Ames, Iowa
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Title Annotation:FOOD AND FARMS; local farmers and Keith Kudej of Madrid Home Communities, Sue Ernest of Bethany Manor in Story City, Iowa and Beth Wisecup of the Madrid facilities
Author:Heffern, Rich
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1U4IA
Date:Jul 6, 2007
Words:879
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