Eat local, Downtown! Co-ops challenge American diets

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August 3, 2009
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie
In case you haven’t noticed, the local food movement is hot.

Farmers markets are more popular than ever. Restaurants all over town are promoting menus featuring local fare, and interest in urban farming and gardening is exploding.

Folks who want to learn more about the local food movement — and those who have already jumped on the homegrown bandwagon — should check out the Eat Local, America! challenge.

The campaign, which runs through the end of August, asks people to pledge to eat more local food. There are two options for people who participate: Veteran locavores are asked to have local food make up 80 percent of their diet (four out of five meals) and newcomers to local food are encouraged to eat at least five local food meals a week.

Jack Hedin, an organic farmer with Featherstone Farms in Rushford, Minn., said the Twin Cities area is blessed with one of the strongest local food economies in the country. He and his wife Jenni have worked on farms all over the United States.

“Nowhere in the country do we have a more vigorous partnership with food co-ops and local food retailers, restaurants and the whole works than we have here in the Upper Midwest,” he said. “We are truly fortunate to have such great partners here.”

Hedin’s farm produces about 90 acres of vegetables each year and he is a supplier for many Twin Cities natural foods co-ops and restaurants. Right now, the farm is harvesting a wide variety of produce, including green beans, zucchini, new potatoes, cherry tomatoes, onions and broccoli.

“We have such faithful customers. The Twin Cities co-ops, in particular, have been steadfast partners,” he said. “In tough times, people tend to dig a little deeper and invest in things that really matter. And to me, good food appears to be one of them. We have only seen increases in interest for our produce, across the board, every year for the past 10 years. The economy does not seem to be affecting what we’re doing in any way.”  

The Eat Local Challenge is a nice way to spotlight the benefits of supporting the local food movement, he said.

“We have to create the future we want to see,” he said. “The Eat Local Challenge is a good vehicle to do that.”

Jeanne Lakso, the marketing and members services manager at the Linden Hills Co-op, said farmers like Hedin should be championed.

“The real heroes in the local food shed are growers and the people who are supplying us with the foods, whether it’s through your local co-op, at their own farm stands, or at your farmer’s market stand,” she said. “They are the people who really make this work.”

She said she thinks a couple of factors are fueling the increased interest in local food. More people are tuned into the safety problems of the food supply, and there’s a tendency for folks to think more about their values when spending money during a downturn.

“When you have less money to spend, you think a little bit more carefully about where you’re spending it. The notion that by buying local foods, you’re able to support your local community, local family farmers, local small food artisans and producers, your dollar is doing double duty,” she said. “You’re not just buying high quality tasty product, you’re also helping to support a vibrant local economy.”

People can register at eatlocalamerica.coop or by signing a poster at any of the 11 Twin Cities Food Co-ops, such as the Wedge and Linden Hills co-ops.

Kim Kusnier, marketing programs specialist for National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA), echoed those comments about the benefits of eating local.

“It’s good for the economy because money from each transaction stays in the region. And it connects residents to the people who grow or produce their food, while helping to support family farms,” Kusnier said. “Plus, local food is more nutritious and simply tastes better because it’s often harvested or processed the same day it arrives at the co-op.”

The Just Food Co-op in Northfield sponsored the first eat local challenge in 2006. The following year all of the Twin Cities area co-ops participated, and in 2008, the initiative became a national challenge.