Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative: Building Healthy and Connected Rural Communities

NEIFFIOn a crisp fall day in Decorah, Iowa, a group of students, parents and community members stands together at a bus stop on a street corner in town. This isn’t an ordinary bus stop. Rather than boarding a school bus, the group is part of a “walking school bus,” where students and adult chaperones walk to school along a fixed route with regular “stops” and pick-up times. 

“It’s just like riding the bus…minus the bus!” exclaims Ashley Christensen, the Regional Safe Routes to School Liaison for the Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, a core partner in the Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative (NEIFFI).

Walking school buses are one way for parents, students and community members to integrate physical activity into their daily routines. Since the 2011-2012 school year, the number of walking school buses in Northeast Iowa has more than doubled – from eight to 19. Last year, more than 185 students – from nine schools in seven communities – participated in the Safe Routes to School Walking School Bus program. 

No small accomplishment, and yet it’s one small piece of the work that NEIFFI does to create “vibrant communities where the healthy choice is the easy choice.”  

NEIFFI brings people together from six counties in Northeast Iowa, a region that’s nearly the size of Connecticut. The goal? Nothing short of making the region a place where “every day, all people have access to healthy, locally grown foods and abundant opportunities for physical activity.”

For more than six years, NEIFFI has been sowing the seeds of success. The initiative has built strong core partnerships with academic institutions and the regional planning commission, supported by numerous additional partnerships with local farmers, growers, producers, school districts, community organizations and funders. 

“Our vision requires a long-term focus on systems change, which in turn requires deep partnerships across traditional boundaries,” says Ann Mansfield, project coordinator for NEIFFI. “We believe that healthier people make stronger families and communities, so we empower our partners to create and sustain access to local, healthy food and opportunities for physical activity.” 

The partnerships catalyzed by NEIFFI are helping transforming the regional food system. Between 2008 and 2013, schools purchased more than $70,000 of food grown by local farmer. The initiative’s work to support the local food system has created 40 new jobs. Infrastructure for walking and bicycling to school has been strengthened, with new bike lanes, crosswalks and pedestrian crossing signage. Support and encouragement for walking and bicycling is increasing through the walking school bus programs, Bike Rodeo safety education events and school-based walking clubs. 

Looking ahead, NEIFFI is tapping its deep, existing relationships with farmers, growers, producers, vendors and school districts to create a shared vision for implementing Farm to Preschool programs in Head Start centers throughout the region. As part of this process, NEIFFI is talking to child care providers and parents, aiming to set children up for success from the start. 

NEFFI is one of six Food & Fitness Initiatives supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The other sites are located in Boston; Detroit; New York: Holyoke, Mass. and Oakland, Calif.

Grant Details

Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque

Dubuque, Iowa, United States

Develop and sustain a rural model for school and early childhood wellness focused on school food, local food system development and active transportation to and from school

Thriving Children
Nov. 1, 2012 - Aug. 31, 2017

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“Empleen el dinero del modo en que crean conveniente, siempre y cuando promueva la salud, la felicidad y el bienestar de los niños.” - Will Keith Kellogg

“Sèvi ak lajan an jan w vle depi se sante timoun, byennèt timoun ak kè kontan pou timoun w ap ankouraje.” - W.K. Kelòg