Little Falls, Minn.
By Maria Surna Manka
Arlene Jones and her family own a farm near Brainerd and are passionate about expanding economic opportunities for farmers in the region. In her years partnering with the University of Minnesota Extension Service and the nonprofit Renewing the Countryside, she has helped other growers find opportunities to sell their products throughout Central Minnesota.
At the same time, the Region Five Development Commission was working with local organizations who wished to buy locally sourced food from area growers.
When Jones and her growers and Region Five and its buyers discovered each other, their shared passion and creativity led to big ideas. “We were like a local foods roadshow,” Jones explained. As they spent time together in the community talking about the aggregation and distribution of local food, the groups started working on the idea of a food hub, which connects food producers with institutional buyers—including restaurants, hospitals, and schools—and end consumers.
The happy result of that brainstorming is Sprout, a Little Falls-based nonprofit that promotes health, economic development and self-reliance by facilitating the availability of locally produced food, products and art.
We spoke with Jones, who is now Sprout’s general manager, and facilities utilization director Natalie Keane about what’s budding at this dynamic organization.
Power of Three—Sprout’s work is focused on three main areas: The Growers & Makers Marketplace, the Food Hub and the Kitchen.
Gatherings—Six times a year, about 40 growers and makers gather to sell their products at Sprout’s 7,500 square foot marketplace in Little Falls. “Each market is completely different,” said Keane. “You’ll see different items at each one because we make sure there’s a diversity of products.”
Leveraging Support—The Initiative Foundation has partnered with Sprout since its inception by supporting a feasibility study of local foods in the region and then helping to match and leverage funds to launch Sprout. The Foundation has also provided numerous AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers along with USDA funding.
Fresh Direct—As a Food Hub, Sprout connects local growers with local buyers. It also rents its licensed processing facilities to support growers who are building their businesses and working with larger buyers.
They’ve Got Goods—More than just veggies and jams, the Marketplace hosts artisan bread makers, chaga (a fungus that grows on birch trees in cold climates) vendors, and even a young jewelry artist who donates half her proceeds to nonprofits. While Sprout encourages new and diverse growers and makers to apply for a booth, the waiting list is growing.
Food Science—Educating communities on the benefits of eating fresh local food is an important piece of Sprout’s work. “We had a Head Start class (serving children under age 5) come to learn about how the food system works. They learned about our Food Hub, did art work and made granola in our kitchen,” noted Keane.
Creating Connections—Sprout’s work boils down to strengthening the community through art and food. “Stop in at an event, meet your community, and get a better understanding of the heritage that makes up our area,” said Keane. “We want to be a place of connections.”
Sell Local—Sprout’s five employees have an eye toward growth, from reimagining the Marketplace to house more vendors, to connecting growers with more restaurants and co-ops. “It’s important to keep our network local,” said Jones. “We want to serve our community and not ship out products to large urban areas.”
Kitchen Skills—Through its Kitchen, Sprout offers cooking classes and trainings. “Growers need the technical skills to compete in a larger market,” explained Jones. Trainings have included post-harvest handling, packaging, basic business planning and marketing.
Community Asset—Classrooms and kitchens can be rented for meetings, parties and cooking events, and the facility includes a warehouse, storage, a walk-in freezer and coolers for growers’ use. “Storage can be a challenge for growers,” Jones said. “Here they can store empty pallets, for example.”
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