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Area organizations aim to get residents to eat healthy, locally

Posted by Christine Mahoney on Friday, Jan. 29, 2010

The average American dinner travels fifteen hundred miles before it reaches a household table. Consequently, the cost for shipping foods is put on the consumer who is, in essence, paying for less nutritious food and spending their money outside of the local economy. Since June 2009, University of Minnesota Morris student, Clara Dux ’11, Stewartville, has been working in the campus's Center for Small Towns to assess the healthy and local food choices challenges and opportunities in Big Stone County.

Lead by Land Stewardship Project in partnership with U of M West Central Partnership, U of M Extension, Crossroads Research Center, and Big Stone Lake Area Local Foods Group the food assessment is supported through a partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield Prevention Minnesota to identify healthy food access and where food in the area is produced, processed, distributed, and eaten. The assessment is the first phase of the project that will lead to implementation of a program to increase consumption of more fruits and vegetables. However, the project partners have taken this a step further to encourage local fruit and vegetable consumption since, as Dux points out, local foods “are generally more nutritious, they're fresher, and they support the local economy."

Food distribution is a complicated network, much like a watershed, with local distributors, processors, and growers scattered across the region. Not surprisingly, surveying and understanding an entire "foodshed" is a daunting task which required Dux and the partners to participate in meetings of community groups such as the Kiwanis Club, the arts group, the Early Childhood Parent Group, the area city councils, and Big Stone county commissioners. Lakeside residents were also surveyed door-to-door as many of the owners are seasonal and were unable attend community meetings. Through the survey, the groups looked for trends among perceived challenges and opportunities for local foods in the Big Stone area. A key goal of the survey was to involve as many people as possible from all around Big Stone County.

"We wanted to involve people from all over, because it's their community—we don't want to tell people what to do because that won't benefit them," Dux notes. So this means reaching out to as many residents as possible, making sure to include families on food stamps, seasonal residents, and everyone in between.

General trends from the surveys revealed that many people in the area feel that general fresh fruit and vegetable availability is limited. According to those surveyed at community events, food processors in the region are scarce making it hard to sell processed food, time is an issue in people’s busy lives, and there is a lack of knowledge of how to preserve, prepare, and grow healthy foods within the average population. To compound these issues, residents feel that small, local grocery stores can't compete with the big-box store prices, making it difficult to find competitive local suppliers. Those surveyed also expressed concern, watching the community's youth turn to "heat-and-eat" foods with little nutritious at home and at school.

But as Dux notes, "each of these challenges can be an opportunity." Ortonville does have a local co-op, which could expand its hours, community education classes on preparing and growing healthy, local meals could start, and establishing community local foods dinners might get people thinking and tasting local foods in new ways.
However, decisions on any courses of action would need to be decided by the community, and the partnership members will be holding a public meeting to identify and “map” community food system assets in November 2009 to wrap of the survey project and help link food consumers with food producers and preparers. A psychology major, Dux notes, "It's important that people are thinking about their food in more ways than, ‘what's for dinner?’. Our first step is to get them asking important questions and help them develop crucial answers."

The U of M West Central Partnership is a legislatively funded initiative led by citizen leaders committed to leverage University resources to sustain Minnesota’s natural resource based economy and empower citizen participation and leadership. U of M West Central Partnership has partnered with the University of Minnesota, Morris Center for Small Towns sponsoring “Connecting Students and Communities” program that provides financial support to hire Morris campus students for community identified projects. Dux’s position is made possible through this program.

The University of Minnesota, Morris Center for Small Towns is a community outreach program that serves as a point-of-entry to the resources of the University of Minnesota. Small towns, local units of government, K-12 schools, non-profit organizations, and other University units are able to utilize the Center's resources as they work on rural issues or make contributions to rural society. The Center’s mission is to focus the University's attention and marshal its resources toward assisting Minnesota's small towns with locally identified issues by creating applied learning opportunities for faculty and students.

PHOTO: Clara Dux '11