As a food group, vegetables don’t get much respect or love - especially among children.

But five adults dressed as vegetables took the stage during the opening day of the Crow Wing County Fair in Brainerd to solicit votes with a tongue-in-cheek debate as to which should be vegetable of the year.

“This is my first time ‘running for office.’ I feel that we need a change,” Brainerd Family YMCA CEO Shane Riffle said before the debate while in costume as a pepper.

Crow Wing Energized launched the One Vegetable One Community initiative at the five-day fair with a first at the fairgrounds: a live debate among vegetables on a stage in front of an audience.

The University of Minnesota Extension Office initiative strives to unite a community by encouraging people to plant, grow, cook and/or share a single vegetable.

Crow Wing Energized

The hope is that it will start a conversation in the community about food, nutrition and how Crow Wing County can support healthier choices, according to Crow Wing Energized officials.

On the same night when 10 of the 20 Democratic presidential candidates were slated to take the stage in Detroit for a second set of debates Tuesday, July 30, the five vegetables engaged each other at the fair.

“I’m Pepper, and I’m here to ‘make vegetables great again!’” Riffle riffing on President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. “And by the way, I am the vegetable that is for jobs as compared to Tomato. She keeps getting rid of workers by ‘canning’ them.’”

Five vegetables were selected in the county as front-runners: peppers, carrots, zucchini, tomatoes and green beans. The aim is to see the vegetable of the year growing at home, in community and school gardens, in front of businesses and government buildings, and more.

“Other communities have done this, so it’s something that we were able to replicate, but we added our own hometown twist. None of the other communities have done a live vegetable debate,” Essentia Health Marketing Manager Kathy Sell said before the debate.

Every three years, Crow Wing Energized conducts a survey of adults in Crow Wing County. The second of those surveys was distributed in the fall of 2017, with more than 1,000 people responding.

The latest Crow Wing County Community Health Survey found 65.7% of adults were not eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables and 64.1% were not meeting physical activity recommendations.

“The tomato is the most popular and the most eaten vegetable in the entire country every year for a reason, and it’s because I’m the best,” Kalsey Stults said while in her tomato costume from the Mills Stage at the fair.

Riffle said he loves peppers - especially salsa and hot sauce - and that the spiciness of peppers can make foodies’ lives “exciting and zesty.”

“Sometimes they’re sweet, and they go in almost any dish, but if you really want to add flavor, the pepper is the one vegetable that can really spice up or light up a meal,” Riffle countered.

Veggies debate

Accusations of deleted emails from an unauthorized, private email server or of Russian meddling were thankfully absent from the One Vegetable One Community debate.

“I think that I have some other competition who may look to mudsling, but I’m a nice tomato. I’m not looking to win votes that way. I’m just trying to encourage the community to vote for me because I’m the best,” Stults said before the debate.

“The good thing about tomatoes is that they can be incorporated on top of salads, sandwiches, but you can also eat them hot in sausage pizza. I mean tomatoes are pretty versatile as far as vegetables go.”

When the power of persuasion failed, the political neophytes employed a wide variety of - and unusual - tactics to court voters, who could vote at the Crow Wing Energized booth inside the Crow Wing County building at the fairgrounds or online at the Brainerd Dispatch website.

“People should vote for the tomato because it is the most widely consumed and the most popular vegetable in the U.S., so for our first year, for the kickoff, why not go with the most popular vegetable to kick off Crow Wing County Vegetable of 2020?” Stults said logically.

Mara Pointer, as the green bean, told her competition on stage, “Green beans are found in great literature, like the fairy tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk.’ Green beans have been cultivated for thousands of years - thousands of years. Green with envy, are we?”

Often the antics and comments of the vegetable candidates elicited cheers and jeers from the amused audience, even with a nunchuck-welding, rapping and beat-boxing Riffle the pepper.

“We are the best vegetable ... you can make me into chips, and they’re still good for you,” Kim Rollins, as the zucchini, told fair-goers. “You can slip it into any dish, and your children will never know the difference. You can also make brownies with zucchini.”

Becky Kalton was in the audience with her grandchildren. The 64-year-old from Merrifield said she is a pre-diabetes lifestyle change coach.

“I’m going to vote for Zucchini because she’s correct. I use it in a lot of things, and family members do not know there’s actually zucchini in some of those dishes,” Kalton said.

Courting voters

Molly Raske is the principal at Nisswa Elementary School but also the life-size carrot competing for the hearts and minds of voters. She wore boxing gloves on her hands in case things got physical.

“I am the first vegetable to be canned commercially, and that’s because I’m the best,” Raske said from the stage. “Carrots are fun. What’s a party without a veggie tray, and what’s on every veggie tray? Carrots! And carrots can be in cake! … Thank you for your vote.”

As a carrot, Raske said a run for the highest elected office of the land - the Oval Office - was not out of the question although it is occupied by another with an arguably orange complexion.

“I might start after this campaign - any shape (office) is fine with me - square, rectangle - any shape,” Raske said before the debate. “The carrot is all about respect and responsibility."

The vegetable candidates handed out campaign buttons, schmoozed and had selfies taken with prospective voters at the fair.

“Some of the candidates like to talk a lot, but not a lot was said. I’m just going to say one word: pizza,” Stults said to an appreciative crowd before dropping the mic on stage.

Deb Muzzy stopped at the debate stage because the 61-year-old Brainerd resident is a fan of Crow Wing Energized. She participated in its diabetes prevention program years ago.

“They said we should eat about five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and I think we probably do one or two a day, so there’s room for improvement,” Muzzy said.

Muzzy is also an Essentia Health employee who thought the debate was “a little long” but “fun.”

“I like carrots because they grow well in the garden, and they’re filling,” said Muzzy, herself a grower of carrots. “But after the debate, I’d have to say beans because they’re growing right now really well.”

Deb Griffith watched the live debate with Muzzy. Griffith said she was also appreciative of the novelty of the pilot event, and the 66-year-old Brainerd resident also participated in the diabetes prevention program.

“Tomatoes are probably one of my favorite vegetables. I just enjoy the taste. You can put them in a BLT, they’re great with cottage cheese on them and salt, or you can just get ripe tomatoes and pop them right in your mouth,” Griffiith said.

“I enjoyed pepper’s, um, ‘music.’ I thought that was very interesting and creative - very clever,” Griffith added. “I liked that a lot, but I still like Tomato.”

Adults in the county believe they are healthy, but a majority have poor eating and exercise habits, according to the latest Crow Wing County Community Health Survey.

“I think any way that you can speak healthy, either by wearing a gimmick or having a gimmick - whatever - if Crow Wing Energized can do that, I’m all for it. I think it’s a good thing to do” Griffith said about the debate.

How to vote

Carrot, zucchini, pepper, tomato or green bean? Which vegetable should be part of Crow Wing Energized's One Vegetable One Community initiative?

You can help decide the outcome by voting on the vegetable ballot at https://bit.ly/2yp6Oin.

Voting will run through Thursday, Aug. 15. Follow Crow Wing Energized on Facebook to see which vegetable comes out the winner.