The Food Desert’s Hidden Oasis

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While spending time in western Minnesota’s Big Stone County recently, I came across a lot of talk about food deserts—those places where people don’t have good access to healthy, affordable food. But while interviewing LSP organizer Rebecca Terk for this week’s podcast, an interesting twist emerged: a type of food desert can exist even when plenty of vittles are being raised literally right in people’s backyards. It turns out a transportation system that’s great at putting Florida tomatoes in Minnesota grocery stores in the middle of February isn’t so good at getting green beans from Clinton to Ortonville.

That’s too bad, because as Terk points out, there’s an impressive array of food produced locally in places like Big Stone County, which fits the USDA’s definition of a food desert since a large proportion of the population lives more than five miles from a grocery store.

“There’s a huge amount of food that is produced in this area, whether it be through home gardens, market gardens, truck gardens or whatever. Every shelter belt has a plum tree and farmsteads have apple trees,” she told me. “If food comes from a farm, which it does, and if food comes from gardens and people’s farmsteads, we’re actually quite a huge food production area.”

And a lot of that food is shared amongst friends, neighbors and relatives in transactions where little or no money is exchanged. In effect, such an informal food distribution network provides a significant source of  food security for low income residents and people on fixed incomes such as the elderly.

This hyper-localized food system provides ample evidence that rural Minnesota can produce much more than corn and soybeans. The bad news is newer residents to a place like Big Stone County usually don’t have access to this insular network, which is characterized by older people teaching younger ones the skills of raising, preserving, storing and preparing fresh, whole foods. In addition, such a tightly-knit system is  limited in its ability to support extensive economic development in the area.

That’s why, as we covered in this blog last week, one idea is to use a vacant restaurant on the Main Street of the tiny town of Clinton as a place where food handling skills can be taught and inter-generational connections re-forged.

But Big Stone County can’t be its only customer if local food is to generate wealth in the region in the long term. Like most counties in Minnesota’s farming region, its rich soil can produce much more fruits, vegetables and livestock products than can be consumed locally. That’s why it’s so critical to have a transportation system that is as good at getting potatoes from a farm in Beardsley to a store in Graceville as it is at shipping those taters to the Twin Cities.

“We need to figure out what to do with that excess,” said Terk. “That’s where we get into discussions of that infrastructure that’s needed for storage, for aggregation, distribution—all of those questions that are really huge everywhere in local foods work.”

Especially with today’s volatile fuel prices, transportation is no longer something that can be taken for granted, said Terry VanDerPol.

“When farmers began developing these direct-from-the-farm markets a few years ago, the attitude was, ‘Do whatever it takes to make it work,’ ” said VanDerPol, who, along with being LSP’s Community Based Food Systems Director, is also a beef producer who direct markets. “But as this sector of the economy grows and matures, it’s become clear activities such as transportation can benefit from closer scrutiny and maybe even some pooling of resources.”

Farmers are finding that the hours (and resources) spent hauling the fruits of their labor would be much better spent on the farm doing what they do best: raising food. So during the past year, LSP has been holding workshops for farmers to help them determine first, how much it’s costing them to haul product from Point A to Point B, and second, what options there may be in their region for spending less time behind the wheel.

The next transportation workshop is Nov. 8 in Bayport, just outside the Twin Cities (click here for details). And on Nov. 16, LSP is sponsoring a workshop in the western Minnesota community of Milan on how farmers can market their products collaboratively (click here for more on that one).

Figuring this transportation issue out could go a long ways toward making some of our food deserts a little more green.




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