Keeping the Community in Healthy Food Access

Accessing fresh, healthy, and affordable foods in rural communities can be a real struggle. Helping people in Big Stone County build those healthy, local food systems has been my work for the past couple of years, and we have seen some good results from it, along with some economic revitalization in the local food sector. There’s always more to be done.

Production of and access to fresh, affordable produce in a rural “food desert” is a problem with many facets: producers cope with weather stresses, low prices, and lack of markets for their product; retailers deal with quality, pricing, and sourcing issues, and consumers may not always be able to get what they want for a price they’re comfortable paying.

So, it seems like any strategy that can help community members increase their access to and intake of fresh fruits and veggies at an affordable price would be a real boon. Bountiful Baskets, a buying club with chapters across the western U.S. and now starting up in Ortonville, purports to do just that. For a $15 (or $25 for the organic option) “financial contribution,” local residents will be able to place an order online for a large portion of produce and pick it up every other week.

Bountiful Baskets calls itself a “Food Co-op,” and its local organizers refer to it as a “non-profit volunteer co-op.” But Bountiful Baskets does not appear to be incorporated as a co-op nor registered as a non-profit in any of the several western states’ records I searched. It was started in 2009 as a for-profit corporation in Arizona, and it was administratively dissolved by the state in 2011 for failure to file annual reports.

Still, Bountiful Baskets organizers refer to the service in the language used by its administrators, and those administrators are careful to indicate that you are not “ordering” the merchandise, you’re contributing to a pool of money to, well, order something with a whole bunch of other people:

“Making a contribution is sometimes referred to as ‘ordering’, but this is not accurate. We call it contributing or participating, because Bountiful Baskets is not a business that you buy from, but rather a co-op where we all pool our money to buy things together.”

So, why does it matter that they are not incorporated as an actual co-op or non-profit? Because being a real co-op actually means something beyond putting your money in a collective pot to purchase a basket of goods–specifically, a co-op is a member-owned, democratically controlled enterprise that operates according to a specific set of principles. The Granary Food Co-op in Ortonville is one such incorporated cooperative, serving its member-owners and community since 1979.

Being a non-profit actually means something, too. Actual non-profits must report how their money is spent–but Bountiful Baskets is silent on the subject of staff, profits, or anything fiscally related other than the above-quoted “contribution” piece. Being a non-profit does not simply mean that you’re relying on local people to do work without being paid, which is a part of the Bountiful scheme.

Bountiful Baskets and its organizers talk about this service being a great community-building enterprise, and there certainly does seem to be a sense of camaraderie among the volunteers at pick-up sites from the comments and reviews I saw online. But, no money is retained in the local community from these online “contributions.” Food from Mexico and the southwestern U.S. comes in on a truck and gets sorted out and taken home by individual “contributors,” bypassing local grocery stores, local farmers markets, and yes, the local food co-op.

In short, Bountiful Baskets is simply a buying club–and one in which you’ll for the most part be purchasing things you can already get locally. Calling it a co-op or a non-profit or comparing it to a CSA (you never know what you’ll get!) or farmers market (all that produce!) is simply disingenuous–capitalizing on the good feelings people have for those things while not actually doing the things that make people feel good about them.

This is not to disparage those unpaid local organizers attempting to set up chapters in their communities–I can certainly empathize with the strain of sourcing good food on a budget–it is simply to tell the truth about what this business is and what it isn’t.

And it is also to ask specific questions: Where do the “contributions” go? Where does the food come from? Who is making money from this enterprise, and how much are they making?

Yes, ordering through Bountiful Baskets can save you money. But the money you’re saving over buying locally is money that pays for local jobs and local infrastructure in your community. It’s money that keeps the rent paid, the lights on, the coolers running, and the farmers farming. It’s money that pays for employees and the merchandise they stock on the shelves.

Building local food systems and increasing access to healthy food isn’t just about the food itself–it’s also about the role of healthy food and local grocery stores in a strong and diversified local economy. Sourcing cheaper produce by circumventing local retailers may be a boost for your family’s budget, but it should not be confused with real strategies for building and investing in community.

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Sharin’ of the Green

Last St. Patrick’s Day, I planted peas. This St. Patrick’s Day, we’re still locked solidly in winter, with a blizzard warning in effect.

But it wasn’t hard to chase the late winter blues away spending an afternoon in Elk’s Bluff Winter Greenhouse, surrounded by beds and hanging planters crammed with greens gorgeous enough for the devil on my shoulder to suggest that sinking down on my knees and grazing might be an option.

Luckily, there was a full salad bowl included with lunch at the Deep Winter Producer’s Association meeting just north of Montevideo, and no one looked askance when I filled my plate twice.

Carol Ford and Chuck Waibel led the discussion, along with hosts Tim and Shelly Elkington, for a group of about twenty would-be winter greenhouse producers from as far away as the Iron Range.

With their Garden Goddess Enterprises in Milan, Chuck and Carol are pioneers in the practice of passive solar greenhouse design and production here in Minnesota, and their presentations and book, The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual, have spawned many similar projects throughout the colder latitudes.

Elk’s Bluff isn’t far, distance-wise, from Garden Goddess, but the Elkingtons have engineered a larger greenhouse with some different design features from the original. The meeting covered a few of those differences, but also featured some discussion of what benefits an association might have for clusters of winter producers–including building parties, aggregated materials and supply sourcing, and ongoing consulting services.

John and I are considering designs for a new garage/shop/summer kitchen building on the farmstead we’re purchasing, so we were there to gather information for a potential addition to this building-of-all-trades. And, well, I figured there might be something good and green to eat, too!

Marketing the bounty of the greenhouses has not posed much of a challenge for the producers–just the mention of fresh food in winter has created customer lists far longer than the small-scale producers can supply. One producer remembered a call from a manager of one of the Twin Cities farmers markets, pleading with her to bring her greens into Minneapolis. The resounding cry from the assembled crowd: “let ’em beg–we feed our own first.”

No doubt a collection of intrepid producers will at some point tap into that lucrative market, but here on the western edge of Minnesota, it would seem a crime to produce such a lovely abundance with such low energy inputs, only to burn tanks-full of gas to cart it across the state.

And, in my humble opinion, the cities don’t need to get every good thing first. A network of winter producers supplying rural Minnesota with the best, freshest food available can just as well add another layer of goodness to our good life here.

I sat down with the greenhouse manual late yesterday afternoon, before our traditional Irish supper of bacon and cabbage, and finished the thing before breakfast this morning. It looks totally doable, and pretty easy to add on to our existing plan, and so I handed it off to John for further consideration.

Instead of sugar plums, my slumber in between was punctuated by visions of buttercrunch and arugula, dancing along with me in a warm, sunny, and moist place to laugh off the winter blues.

Strata Quarry Information Session Tonight

The public is invited to a Strata Quarry Community Information & Listening Session tonight (Thursday, October 25) at 7pm at the New Life Baptist Church at 605 Minnesota Street North in Ortonville.

A plan by Strata Corporation of North Dakota to develop a granite aggregate quarry just south of Ortonville, in Ortonville Township, Big Stone County, along the Minnesota River is an issue dividing the community. Governmental bodies and citizens are at odds over the proposal.  Publicly available information about the project’s status is in short supply.

In order to support the public’s right to know and shed light on the proposed Ortonville Quarry Project, its history and its possible future, you are respectfully invited to attend this public event convened by The Ortonville Township Board of Supervisors and Township Planning and Zoning Commission.

Refreshments will be served.

Annexation Rules Change for Proposed Quarry Site Hearing Details

Both meetings are on MONDAY, OCTOBER 15 (tomorrow, as of the date of this posting).

City of Ortonville Planning Commission public hearing (to consider a change of rules regarding how annexed land is zoned): 3pm, City Hall, 315 Madison Avenue, Ortonville, MN 56278

City of Ortonville City Council meeting (to consider recommendations of planning commission/adopt annexation rule change): 7pm, Public Library Media Center, 412 2nd Street NW, Ortonville, MN 56278

I don’t know why I was hearing there would be a special meeting of the city council at 5pm in city offices–first and third Mondays of the month at 7pm in the basement (sidehill entrance) of the library are the council’s regularly scheduled meetings, so it sounds like that is where and when the language will be considered/adopted. If I find out anything different, I will post ASAP.

These meetings are PUBLIC. And, the public is strongly urged (by me, and by all those who oppose annexation of the proposed quarry site in Ortonville Township) to attend.

If you care, do what you can to be there.

Speckled Romans

This is the first year I’ve grown Speckled Romans. I’ve tried Red Zebra before (which is a round red stripey tomato), and I wasn’t impressed with the flavor (though they looked gorgeous).

These lovelies have both gorgeous looks and great flavor. Definitely will be getting a re-run in my gardens in years to come.