Hyperlocal food

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September 26, 2011
By: Drew Kerr
Drew Kerr
Northeast community looks inward 
as it strives for a better food system

The Northeast’s fledgling local foods movement is 
beginning to take root.

At the Northeast Farmers Market, the number of vendors has more than tripled since its inception a decade ago. Three new mid-week farmers markets have sprung up in the community within just the last two years.

Elsewhere, leaders of the Eastside Food Co-op report steady, double-digit growth and a membership that has nearly quadrupled since its opening in 2003.

Community gardens have also emerged in at 
least three locations, including one run by students 
at Thomas Edison High School in a lot at the corner 
of Lowry and Central avenues that was left vacant 
after a fire.

The garden, with basil, cucumbers and other greens, is supported in part by the Sen Yai Sen Lek Thai restaurant, 2422 Central Ave. NE, whose owners recently donated part of their third anniversary proceeds to its continuation.

Residents have gotten involved as well, building chicken coops in their backyards and planting gardens on their properties or other vacant patches of earth that 
would otherwise go unused.   

“When this all started, it was really just kind of a grassroots effort,” said Rod Stevens, one of two people who manage Northeast Farmers Market. “But it’s all really grown quite a bit.”

Those involved with the community’s local food system say the progress has been remarkable given the challenges they face.

The Northeast community has hard, sandy soil, making it tough for home growers. Because it is home to many low-income families, proponents say they have also had to dispel the myth that local food is unaffordable.

Such barriers are being overcome, if slowly, through a combination of grassroots, community efforts and the support of targeted government programs, residents involved in the local food movement say.

The new midweek farmers markets, for example, are part of the city’s mini-markets program, which serves to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to underserved pockets of Minneapolis.

“Our farmers are always happy at the end of the night,” said Sarah Olson, the manager of the Audubon Farmers Market, which opened on Johnson Street in 2009 as part of the city’s mini-market program.

“It’s just been great to see how welcoming and how excited all the neighbors are about this,” she said. “We’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback.”

The city has also led an effort to allow food stamps to be used at farmers markets that has helped build a customer base.

The Northeast Farmers Market became one of just three locations in the city to begin accepting food stamps last year, which officials say generated around $500 in new sales. Officials say word about the program’s benefits has quickly spread, and that this year’s food stamp sales surpassed last year’s total in just the first two months of the farmers market.

“It’s a way to draw in new customers and what we’re finding is that once we get them there, they tend to come back,” said Kristen Klingler, who works to promote the program for the city.

The shift toward local food is very much a homegrown, grassroots effort, however.

The Northeast Farmers Market — among the oldest neighborhood markets in the city — is perhaps the clearest manifestation of resident-driven action, proponents say.

Held in the St. Boniface parking lot, the market originated with just 10 vendors as a way to bring local food into a community that otherwise lacked access to nutritious sustenance.

There are now more than 35 vendors on site, including bakers, a Kombucha maker and several vegetable growers.  Those who sell there say they have been more than happy with the amount of business they do there.

“We come here because we know the customers aren’t going to leave,” said David Gray, who has sold organic tomatoes and greens from the eQuality farm at the market for the last two years. “This market has been around so long it’s just become a staple.”

The market’s growth has served as a catalyst for many of the developments taking place in the neighborhood now because it has been used as an education tool as much as a place to make sales.

“For one day a week, we’re able to show people that fresh fruits and vegetables are available, and that they can come at a reasonable cost,” said Stevens, the market co-manager.

The East Side Food Co-op, which used the market as a fundraiser and promotion tool when it moved to open in an old auto parts store in 2003, has also worked to educate residents about local food.

Leaders there say their work is paying dividends, too.

The co-op opened with fewer than 900 members and dire predictions but now has more than 3,500 members, earning its nickname “The Little Co-op That Could.”

Though there have been difficulties, the store now regularly turns a profit, said Kristina Gronquist, the co-op’s assistant general manager.

“We’re riding this wave, this resurgence toward local food,” said Gronquist.

What this all means for the community at large is still being determined.

But residents who have pushed the community toward local food say they hope it leads to something larger: a locally based economy that thrives on close partnerships and cooperation. Food, they say, can serve as a means to lift the entire area and make it more self sufficient, sustainable and community-oriented.

Backers acknowledge reaching their utopian vision of a strong, vibrant local food system in which all residents have equal access will not occur over night.

But each step that is taken is a step in the right direction, said Martin Brown, who co-manages the Northeast Farmers Market and has worked at the East Side Co-op as well as community gardens in the neighborhood.

“I don’t really envision a finished product,” he said. “It’s all a part of a process.”