CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- The University of Northern Iowa is putting a name and a face to the foods that students eat every day in the dining hall.
Though local food purchases have been a priority at UNI since 1999, a new initiative, called Faces of Our Farmers, encourages student awareness of the food they eat and where it comes from. Starting this month, students will see photos and stories of the farmers that produced the items they pile on their plates in the cafeteria.
Rachel Wobeter, the local food program manager at the Center for Energy and Environmental Education, heads the effort. She has been traveling around the Cedar Valley, collecting stories of local farmers who sell their products to UNI.
"It's important that students understand where their produce is coming from so they can support UNI and what they're doing for local farmers," Wobeter said.
She has been working with Justin Allen, a UNI student photographer, who took portraits of the farmers. Wobeter plans to produce the project as an art installation at a local gallery.
"There's fewer and fewer farmers, which means there are fewer and fewer students who come to UNI with that farming background," she said. "Once a student does get educated about where their food is coming from they might demand to see more of that. ... That just encourages UNI to continue their commitment to local food."
Many area farmers said universities are the most stable economic partnership they have.
When school is in session, UNI purchases about four cattle and four hogs each month from the Gilbertville Meat Locker, located in its namesake about 20 miles from campus.
Jeff Frost, the locker's owner, said the partnership with the university is extremely valuable for his small business.
"It helps keep us busy when school's in session," Frost said. "We have a lot of people from Cedar Falls come down and a lot of the college students they hear of us from up there at UNI. So it helps tremendously; it's a big impact."
Lindsay Schmidt, a 26-year-old organic farmer in Waverly and her fiance Travis Kaiser would love to break into the UNI market.
The couple recently took over the Kaiser family's dairy farm and sell products to a dependable coop. But since there's so much cost that goes into maintaining the farm's facilities, sometimes they only break even.
"Farming has been in my blood, and it's something I've always wanted to do, and I'm glad to carry on the tradition," Kaiser said. "But it can be a struggle to make ends meet and get your expenses paid."
The couple chooses to do most of the farm work by hand, taking care of 50 milk cows, chickens and a third-of-an-acre vegetable garden with 150 varieties of plants. They sell at two farmers markets in Cedar Falls but are still searching for other dependable economic outlets.
"Institutions are a really good market to have, UNI being one of them, because of their regular service," Schmidt said. "As a diversified farmer you want to diversify your market as well. But having a key buyer that's consistent and has a large quantity would really give a beginning grower a leg-up in their business,"
Soon, students grabbing an omelet for breakfast at the Maucker Union also will see the face of Tim Daley of New Hartford, who sells most of his free-range chicken eggs to UNI.
Daley is a hobby farmer who chose to grow his own food for his health. But he's a firm believer in supporting the local food system and traditional farming practices.
"There needs to be a change within our system to a more regional-based food system instead of a national based. That's why I've really gotten involved with the local food movement," he said.
And Daley said selling to a local institution like UNI is a part of reaching that goal.
"It's a labor of love."