LITTLE FALLS-Earlier this summer, Krystal Katzenberger tried bok choy for the first time.
Her family received it as part of a community-supported agriculture share, along with a recipe suggesting how to cook the Chinese cabbage. Weeks later, Katzenberger and her 12-year-old daughter Kylee Charpenter learned to prepare peach salsa using ingredients from local farmers.
"I'm not scared to try new things," Katzenberger said. "It's taking food that you would never think to put together, and you put them together. It's better ideas, a healthier way."
Cooking up community
Katzenberger is a participant in the Live Better Live Longer Eat Smart program, a community outreach program offered through CHI St. Gabriel's Health. The program takes referrals from local providers for who might benefit from participation. Katzenberger was referred by her children's school nurse. A free, bi-weekly community-supported agriculture share or CSAs-which provides fresh local produce directly from farmers to consumers-is one of the offerings of the program, along with cooking classes and demonstrations for how to use that produce.
In late July, Katzenberger and about 15 others prepared kale with bacon and summer vegetable pasta in the demonstration kitchen at the Sprout Growers and Makers Marketplace in Little Falls. Elizabeth Quillo, a University of Minnesota Extension educator, led the class along with demonstrations afterward for those unable to attend. Quillo said the classes are an important tool to reach out to the community and promote healthy eating.
"Some people, they're not familiar with a lot of vegetables," Quillo said. "They aren't able to risk financially fitting that into their budget and then wasting it. Having tried it, now they're going to be more willing to buy it. It's not a risk anymore, because they know that their kids are going to like it and they're going to eat it."
After eating what they'd created, the cooking class participants lined up to collect their bounty: romaine lettuce from Barry Thoele in Staples; kale from Chuck Tangen in Motley; cherry tomatoes from Levi Lambright in Eagle Bend; cucumbers from Joseph Borntrager in Clarissa; zucchini from the Agua Gorda Cooperative in Long Prairie; eggs from Debbie Funk in Rice; and green beans and thyme from Arlene Jones, co-owner of the Farm on St. Mathias and the manager of the Sprout Food Hub.
Nurturing family farms
The marketplace and processing center is the latest endeavor of Sprout Food Hub, a nonprofit organization with the mission to promote locally produced food while affording local producers the opportunity to become more economically viable through the use of shared resources to distribute and market their products. Besides the demonstration kitchen, it includes a large space for market vendors, a processing kitchen, commercial coolers and freezers and other storage areas-all within a large industrial facility that once housed a Crestliner boat manufacturing operation.
The food hub works with more than 60 local growers utilizing sustainable practices and serves restaurants, schools, hospitals and CSA customers. The hub distributes more than 100,000 pounds of food each year and educates small farmers on food safety, business planning and economic research.
For Jones, who was on hand to distribute the produce that July day, the Eat Smart program is an example of numerous goals of the organization coming together.
"My ultimate goal always is supporting small family farms and keeping small family farms in business," Jones said. "But we have to place more value on our food ... (such as) what you put in your body and the benefits of healthy food versus manufactured food. We need to place more value on food by eating healthy and supporting our local economies by purchasing local food. I think we're getting there."
Jones said the demand for local food has become so strong it's been difficult for the hub at times this summer to meet it. This includes CSA programs at two other area health care providers-Lakewood Health Systems and CentraCare Health. The demand these offer guarantees revenue for the farmers, she said.
"We need some structure and sustainability in the distribution," Jones said. "The CSA programs have been really beneficial for that."
The hub is coordinating 220 shares this year, up from 120 the previous year. At 30 pounds per weekly share, farmers are guaranteed distribution of 6,600 pounds of food each week. This is in addition to the variable demand at farmers markets and through food service and institutional customers.
Jones said some of the CSA shares might be expanded through the winter months, a previously difficult task made easier by the processing kitchen now available at the Sprout facility. Items such as canned tomatoes or frozen summer produce can be distributed in the harsh months of January and February.
"Right now, I have a box of green beans back there that I think I'm going to end up flash freezing," Jones said. "That's the benefit of these kitchens, is that food doesn't have to go in the compost pile."
Jones hopes other local farmers or artisan food producers will take advantage of the kitchen and storage spaces as well. In late July, Sprout officially launched its licensed facility for rent. Oma's Bread will be one of the first to use the kitchen for baking breads, pies and specialty items such as German späetzle for sale to the public.
"We will use the kitchen to bake our products. We are required to use a commercial kitchen for preparing foods that will be sold to the public," said Annette Schmid of Oma's Bread in a news release. "The Sprout Food Hub's licensed kitchen allows us to do that. We pay to lease the facility and it gives us adequate space, ovens and equipment to expand our capacity and market channels."
Another local producer signed up to use the space is the Agua Gorda Cooperative, which provided the zucchini in the CSA share Katzenberger and others took home. Besides zucchini, the Long Prairie cooperative is growing 45,000 pounds of tomatillos for a tamale factory in the Twin Cities, Jones said. The cooperative is planning to prepare salsa in the Sprout kitchen, an example of a value-added product Jones said small family farmers might not be able to produce as readily without access to the shared space.
Cultivating rural resilience
The food hub concept has gained cachet, particularly among those seeking ways to improve rural economies. In April, the marketplace facility opened to great fanfare, drawing the praise of several high-profile government officials. This included Lisa Mensah, undersecretary of rural development from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the grand opening, Mensah said there's a misconception that rural America is stagnant or on a downturn, and what she saw while visiting central Minnesota painted an entirely different picture.
"This is a vision that only people with great vision could have created. ... I've seen a food economy that isn't just boutique, but is really something permanent," Mensah said. "If rural America doesn't thrive, America won't thrive. It may be 15 percent of the population that lives in rural America, but we feed the whole other 85 percent."
A litany of others spoke as well, including local growers, representatives from other food hubs around the state and Colleen Landkamer, the state director of USDA Rural Development.
"It's all about your resilient region in this area, and it's all about people coming together making a difference and improving the quality of life and financial stability for people in this region," Landkamer said.
Cheryal Hills, executive director of the Region Five Development Commission, was one of the major backers of the Sprout marketplace, Jones said in April. The food hub concept fits into a vision of economic development as part of the Resilient Region initiative, the mission of which is to sustainably plan regionwide infrastructure such as housing, transportation, land use, energy and local foods.
Carol Anderson, director of Community Development of Morrison County, told the Brainerd Dispatch at the kickoff event that she sat down with Hills after learning more about the local foods focus of the Resilient Region initiative. Partners involved in the planning and initial funding process for the Sprout facility included the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the USDA, Region Five, the Initiative Foundation, the city of Little Falls and the National Joint Powers Alliance, among many others.
Anderson said the project not only expands the Sprout Food Hub's capacity for providing local foods to area school districts and healthcare facilities, it also boosts the local farming economy.
"If a farmer has money in his pocket, he's going to spend it," Anderson said. "And he's going to spend it in his local hometown. That's why it's so important. We want him to stay in this community, raise kids in this community, send them to our school districts and then when you get your profit, go downtown and spend it."
Sprouting the grassroots
Jones said it's the members of the community that will ultimately shape the direction of the initiative. From the "30,000-foot view" of a resilient economy to small changes in the choices of individuals in their kitchens, the local foods movement is different for everyone.
Jones believes the vision is realized within people like Katzenberger and Kylee.
"When I make a salad now, I don't just do the ranch and the lettuce," Katzenberger said. "I put zucchini in it or more healthier greens-a lot of spinach now. ... I do feel good. If you eat the wrong food, you're like, 'I'm so full, I don't want to do anything.' But if I eat my salad and my good meals, I'm like, 'I'm feeling good, I can still accomplish something for the day.'"
For more information, visit www.SproutMN.com and follow the Sprout Food Hub and Sprout Growers & Makers Marketplace on Facebook. Markets are planned for the remainder of the year at the facility, located at 609 13th Ave. NE, Little Falls, for the following dates: Sept. 10, Oct. 22, Nov. 19, Nov. 26, Dec. 10 and Dec. 17.
Business: Sprout Growers and Makers Marketplace, operated by Sprout Food Hub
City: Little Falls
Number of employees: three, plus dozens of volunteers who help pack CSA boxes, distribute food, work at markets and complete other tasks.
Interesting fact: The Minnesota Department of Agriculture maintains a directory of Minnesota growers called "Minnesota Grown." In 2015-16, the directory listed 1,027 farms and farmers markets throughout the state.