For Iowans, Decorah typically calls up visions of rugged limestone bluffs and a rooted Nordic culture. Far fewer recognize this small town in the northeast corner of the state as an important center of healthy living and environmental sustainability. In fact, Decorah-area residents haven’t simply jumped on the food/fitness/eco-awareness bandwagon—they’re currently driving it. Below are three major players committed to greening the region.

Oneota Community Food Co-op

Searching out regionally produced edibles is a top priority at Decorah’s Oneota Community Food Co-op, says Johanna Bergan, the co-op’s education and outreach coordinator.

More than one-fifth of the food sold here is harvested or processed within a 100-mile radius of Decorah, a respectable fraction that the co-op hopes will increase. To boost the use of local ingredients, the co-op schedules cooking classes, wellness programs and book groups. It also offers support to nearby growers by connecting them with regional distributors.

One highly visible, successful aspect of the cooperative’s efforts to promote local food is its Water Street Café. Here, menu themes change daily: Soul food might be followed by Mediterranean, Thai or (a no-brainer) Norwegian entrees. This flexibility allows cafe chefs to ponder over fresh ingredients as soon as they arrive from surrounding farms and then build a list of delicious dishes around them.

Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative

Sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Food & Community program, this innovative campaign, now in its third year, is one of nine Kellogg-funded projects around the nation meant to transform people’s fitness efforts and eating habits.

Director Ann Mansfield says the project’s work in six Iowa counties represents “the front edge” of change. The goal? Making healthful choices easier for everyone. During the past two years, among the Decorah area’s 20 school districts, 14 have founded wellness teams. Sixteen districts established sustainable student-transportation methods. (In Decorah, for example, neighborhood children form groups to walk together as if they were traveling on a bus.) Eighteen districts took advantage of Iowa’s farm-to-school program, established by the Iowa Legislature in 2007; this links schools with area farmers who can truck in their morning’s harvest for school lunches. Finally, and significantly, food served at some school-sponsored extracurricular events included healthier options, such as turkey sandwiches, local apples and Wisconsin cheese sticks.

Mansfield stresses that the Kellogg project isn’t just about schools but about the economy as well; it has spun off at least 36 new jobs. Among these are 11 food producers and 10 positions in recently opened dairies. Further results of the program’s influence: Two urban businesses planted gardens. Exercise trails were cleared, and food pantries started offering coupons for farmers markets. Even the White House has spotted these improvements; Mansfield recently received a call from Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.

Luther College

Sustainability ranks as a major goal at Luther College, a private four-year liberal-arts school of 2,500 students in Decorah. Luther was among 10 recipients of a 2012 Second Nature Climate Leadership Award, recognizing the college’s reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions as well as its promotion of sustainability and climate-change issues in student learning. Previously, Luther was one of eight U.S. schools to receive an “A” on the College Sustainability Report Card.

During the fall of 2011, Luther installed a 1.6-megawatt wind turbine designed to generate a third of the electricity consumed annually on campus. The college’s sustainable transportation solutions include student bike-sharing and car-sharing (around the country as well as in town), plus an official decrease in the sanctioned number of student vehicles.

Though Luther was established in 1861, its forward-looking, planet-protective ambitions give it youthful street cred. Says campus eco-expert Dan Bellrichard, “Students are more in tune with an institution that’s dedicated to sustainability.”  Written by Deb Wiley

Writer, editor and photographer Deb Wiley specializes in garden and lifestyle subjects. She’s a fifth-generation Iowan: Her great-great-grandfather, Henry Clay Wiley, moved here from Vermont in 1865.


 

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