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A Fresh Start

Co-ops bring a bounty of local food to Central Minnesota tables.

By Lynette Lamb | Photography by John Linn

If you crave locally raised heritage pork, honey or organic breads and live near Pequot Lakes, you’re in luck.

Two years ago, when Ideal Green Market Co-op opened in this Central Minnesota town, an important nutritional asset was added to an area where people were previously forced to drive for miles to shop at Costco or Save Foods.

“We’re providing good, fresh food in what is kind of a food desert in resort country,” said Ideal Green Market Co-op staffer Barb Mann, who is also a project manager for the Food Co-op Coalition. An initiative of the Region Five Development Commission, the coalition promotes the economic and social value of food co-ops, which are owned and democratically operated by its members.

It’s welcome news when you consider that rural food deserts— defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as an area here residents have to travel more than 10 miles to a supermarket or large grocery store—are a serious issue in Greater Minnesota, according to Cheryal Hills, executive director of the Region Five Development Commission. “Missing meals, pervasive poverty—we see it even in agricultural households,” she said. “A lot of small towns don’t have a grocery store, and getting one is their main priority.”

In fact, many people in Northern and Central Minnesota drive between 25 and 50 miles to find a grocery store. Compounding the problem, according to Hill, is the fact that many “people out there cannot afford a car or can’t drive because of their age.” The rise of the big box store isn’t the only reason for this challenge. Most local grocers who are nearing retirement age don’t have a plan in place to sell or transfer their stores, according to research done by the University of Minnesota Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.

Jo Foust, owner of the Municipal Development Group in New Prague, did several small-town, community-based food analysis and feasibility studies, funded by the Initiative Foundation. From one such study, completed in 2013 in Rockford, she discovered that “the number one requested retail service was a grocery store.”

While relief in the food desert landscape is crucial to the region, co-ops also bring social interactions to their communities. “They’re run like nonprofits and are mission-driven, whereas most grocery stores are based purely on financial transactions,” said Hills. Neighbors come together to buy organic and local food, or even to sell art. And food and art bring people together in ways that other commodities do not. “I fear there would be a social impact if the predictions are true and we continue to lose local stores and co-ops,” said Hills.

Mann also endorses the community-building function of food co-ops in the Greater Minnesota towns they serve. “Many people around here say they don’t know their neighbors,” she said of Pequot Lakes, especially if they’re among the many Twin Citians who have retired to the area’s lake cabins. “By shopping at the co-op, they say they’re meeting friends and neighbors and feeling more a part of the community.”

Pequot Lakes’ Ideal Green Market started, as do many small co-ops, with a farmers market that first got fresh, local food to area citizens. Now the co-op, located in a remodeled older building, is up to 245 members and growing.

That’s where Little Falls’ nascent The Purple Carrot Co-op hopes to be in a few years. As of September, manager Susan Prosapio said her co-op had 216 members, with an ultimate goal of 600. They’ve already found “the perfect building in a dream location” in downtown Little Falls, having leased an 8,000-squarefoot brick building (only half of which will be used for the co-op) in the city’s historic district. “We’re all really excited about the prospects this building brings us,” she said.

The Purple Carrot’s timeline isn’t set in stone. “Residents are excited about the co-op, but we’re trying to get them to understand that we can’t open until more of them become owners,” said Prosapio. “And we speak in terms of ownership rather than a oneyear membership,” she adds, explaining that becoming part of a co-op is meant to be a long-term commitment. She hopes that within the year they can start designing the store space and within two years the co-op can open for business.

The Purple Carrot is fortunately situated, given that Sprout Growers & Makers Marketplace, a producers cooperative, is also located in Little Falls. The Initiative Foundation participated in early stage analysis, research and feasibility studies to help Sprout get started. Today the organization buys produce from farmers in an eight-county area, Prosapio explains, and in turn sells it to area restaurants, nursing homes and food co-ops. “They’ll be a major supplier for The Purple Carrot,” said Prosapio, who notes that this partnership will free her from contracting with 100 or more separate local farmers. Sprout also contains a commercial kitchen, which allows local people to bottle their own honeys, salsas, sauces and other homemade products, which they can then sell to the co-op.

Although it’s hard for The Purple Carrot members to wait for that brick and mortar store, the initiative has already taken hold. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that a food co-op exists before the grocery store opens,” said Prosapio. “We are already working in Little Falls to talk about food issues, to hold healthy cooking events and to build community. Even if we never open our grocery store, we believe The Purple Carrot is making a difference right now.”

Central Minnesota co-ops are being helped along by a new regional initiative called the Food Co-op Coalition, a consortium of six Greater Minnesota co-ops. Four of the co-ops are open and two are in the planning stages. Besides The Purple Carrot and Ideal Green Market, its members are Down Home Foods (Wadena), Crow Wing Food Co-op (Brainerd), Everybody’s Market (Long Prairie), and Minnesota Street Market (St. Joseph).

Spearheaded by the Region Five Development Commission, the Food Co-op Coalition is managed by Mann. Group members began meeting a year ago and have already launched an educational campaign called Why Co-ops? With funding from the National Joint Powers Alliance, the Why Co-ops? campaign is “designed to educate people about the value of becoming a co-op member/owner,” said Mann.

Among those advantages is the economic value a co-op brings to its community. About 60 percent of the money spent in a co-op stays in the community, said Mann. “One dollar spent in a co-op goes much farther in a community than one dollar spent at a big box store.”

Like Prosapio and Hills, Mann points to the communitybuilding aspects of co-ops—and that means everyone in the community, regardless of buying power. “One of the challenges we face is providing accessibility for every income level,” said Mann. Food Co-ops Coalition members, she says, make sure that food stamps can be used at each of their stores, and they also are urged to give back to their communities—to a town project, for example, or to a family in need. “When you build community, your town is stronger in the long haul for everyone.”

The Why Co-ops? project will attempt to educate Minnesotans with a combination of videos, a web page, brochures, print ads, articles in local newspapers and on radio stations and possibly even billboards and TV advertising.

Other coalition goals are to work toward joint purchasing of both insurance and foods; applying for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for board of directors training; and launching a new mobile food truck that could travel to even more remote areas, bringing local foods to nursing homes, daycare centers, manufacturing plants and other smaller population centers.

In the end, advocates hope food co-ops will open and succeed in smaller communities around the state because they are, according to Foust, “one method of filling the gap—increasing people’s healthy food options and decreasing the time they need to pick up necessities.”

The grocery business, Foust points out, is very competitive, and recruiting grocery stores to smaller towns is tough because they have rigid demographic and distance requirements. Food co-ops, on the other hand, are locally owned, so that “the community is investing in filling their own gaps, and they can open a store based on the community’s own needs and desires.”

Back in Little Falls, Susan Prosapio is getting impatient for The Purple Carrot to open its doors. “We want to do this right,” she said. We want to give The Purple Carrot and its owners the best shot at being successful and gorgeous when we open. We don’t want to sell our potential short.”

The Little Grocery That Could How creativity (and a sense of community) has helped
one small-town grocer thrive. The “working man’s brat” definitely gets people talking about Gosch’s grocery in tiny Randall. (population 650). Over Labor Day, the store’s butcher advertised a brat made of “blood, sweat, and tears.” The blood was symbolized by sweet red peppers, while jalapeno peppers took the place of sweat. The tears, naturally, came courtesy of the onions.

“We pride ourselves on our fresh and smoked meats. That’s one thing that sets us apart from the chain stores,” says Denny Mueller, who has owned Gosch’s with his wife, Lori, for 13 years.

Other initiatives that have helped this small-town grocer thrive include working with local farmers to provide fresh tomatoes, sweet corn, pumpkins and other produce; switching to a St. Cloud wholesaler to keep their food more local and fresh; and teaming up with a Kansas State/University of Minnesota rural grocery program to provide nutritional education and other programs.

“You can get a can of soup anyplace,” said Mueller. But you can’t get a working man’s brat at Walmart.

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