The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Johnson County grant sprouts opportunity for small farmers

Johnson County Community Food and Farm Grant funds small farmers and food businesses to strengthen local food systems.
Isabella Tisdale
Steve Swenka hooks up a Gehl grinder-mixer to his tractor at Double G Angus Farms in Tiffin on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. Double G Farms has been open for 111 years and is currently owned by Steve Swenka and his wife, Amy.

For Iowa City resident David Lam and his family, a Johnson County grant program that aims to increase access to fresh food made “a small dream come true.”

David Lam’s parents, Nam and Anna Lam, moved to Iowa from Vietnam; his father a refugee, and his mother an immigrant.

“When they first came to the U.S., they didn’t know how to eat the things that we had here in Iowa,” David Lam said.

Craving their home country’s produce, the Lams started a backyard garden and expanded it in 2008 to start selling their produce, plants, and food as Nam and Anna’s Garden at the Iowa City Farmers Market.

“We have a lot of our international community here, students and people who are immigrants or refugees that we’re able to cater to,” David Lam said. “It’s like memories of home. You have vegetables and things that you can’t find that you grew up with. That’s our market.”

The Lams are one of several recipients of Johnson County’s Food and Farm Grant Program, which was created in 2020 to address the impact of the pandemic on local food systems. In the program’s most recent cycle, the county awarded around $285,000 to 15 applicants, according to the program’s website.

The Lam family used the funding they received in 2023 to purchase a greenhouse, which David Lam said is essential to nurture Vietnamese crops in Iowa’s cold climate.

“My parents have wanted a greenhouse for a long time, but we don’t make enough from vending at the market to justify building and maintaining it,” David Lam said. “The grant made it possible for us to expand the things that we’re going to offer to the community.”

Responding to a recommendation from the Food Policy Council, Johnson County created the grant program, which is funded through the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, in cycles, providing $350,000 for this current cycle.

Linn County has a similar program that awarded $250,000 in ARPA funding to its local growers to increase food security.

“We know with COVID there was complete supply chain breakdown,” said Cassidy Beamer, a local food assistant for the Johnson County Board of Supervisors. “It became very evident how important it is to build food system resiliency.”

This grant, Beamer said, was the first of its kind for Johnson County. Based on the guidelines from the ARPA, applications were open to small food businesses as well as nonprofit organizations. Twenty small businesses and four nonprofit organizations have received funding so far.

“The beauty of this grant is that it’s a great resource for businesses to self-determine what’s limiting their capacity and request funds to address that need,” Beamer said, emphasizing that the nonprofits that received funding used it to directly benefit farmers.

The Global Food Project, a nonprofit founded in 2016 that provides Johnson County residents, primarily immigrant families, with garden plots at the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm, received the grant.

The organization offers smaller-sized plots for families as well as larger “market plots” for participants interested in growing produce at a large enough scale to vend at the farmer’s market. With the funding they received in 2023, the organization purchased a trailer to assist with market deliveries.

“Rather than having each of them buy a vehicle that can deliver produce, which is unrealistic, we just have one trailer so we can do collective deliveries,” Global Food Project Manager Will Kapp said.

Global Food Project also allocated funding to directly support individual growers.

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“I gave $1,000 in supplies to all the people who were on market plots this year to start up,” Kapp said.

Applications for the third round of funding are available until April 12. Beyond this round, the future of the grant is unknown.

“We’ll be using all the funds we have available in this round. So there’s no other funding secured in the future,” Beamer said. “But we feel motivated to find creative ways to fund this program because it’s filled a huge need for more capital in our community, and we think the impacts could be even more great.”

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About the Contributor
Isabella Tisdale
Isabella Tisdale, Photojournalist
Isabella Tisdale is a photojournalist for The Daily Iowan and is a senior at West High school. In her free time, she stage manages for the theater program at West High. She plans to double major in political science and journalism.