By: Zach Hacker, Morrison County Record
“Together, all three of our organizations have formed an informal collaborative to try to meet the needs and opportunities of the citizens here in Little Falls and all of the surrounding communities,” Prosapio said. “We’re hoping to work together to help strengthen the local economies as we all are trying to recover from (the pandemic).”
“We have the ability — for consumers — the ability to access healthy foods,” Prosapio said. “Not everybody can hop in a truck and go out to a farm and pick up foods from there. Some folks have difficulty going over to a farmers market. We need greater access.”
That access, she said, is not only on the consumer side. Producers also need greater access to markets and the ability to get their products to consumers.
She said the collaborative also identified a need and an opportunity to improve the health of community residents. With that, there is also a chance to expand the local economy and utilize foods as an economic engine for the Little Falls area.
“Supporting our local agricultural community is the easy part, but it also increases tourism,” Prosapio said. “People actually drive places to access healthy, local foods.”
She added that the phenomenon of people wanting to know where their food is coming from is being felt throughout the state and nation as a whole. The group believes a strong local food system in Little Falls would help make it a more desirable community when people are looking to relocate.
Her organization, Purple Carrot, is a local food cooperative that started in 2015. She said it currently has 637 owners, 73% of whom live within the Little Falls ZIP code and 90% of whom are in Morrison County.
Purple Carrot owns and manages the Victor Mall on East Broadway. Eventually that will be the site of a full-service grocery store in downtown Little Falls.
“The Purple Carrot is committed to sourcing as much food as we can from local producers, so we now would have a convenient downtown location for people to access food,” Prosapio said. “Interestingly enough, that area is considered a food desert by the definition of the USDA. We would be bringing a full-service grocery store into a food desert.”
She added the location would also help alleviate transportation barriers to accessing local, healthy food. The market will also accept SNAP and EBT to ensure low-income families will be able to access its wares.
“I want to tell you, on behalf of the Purple Carrot, we feel really fortunate to have a really vibrant local farmer’s market and Sprout, a local food hub,” Prosapio said. “It makes the work of a local food cooperative much easier, and it really goes to our mission.”
Pederson said the Little Falls Farmer’s Market dates back to the 1880s, though it looks a lot different now. In its early days, there were live pigs, chickens and more. At one time, she said the city was known as the “Largest Little Pig Market in the World.”
The farmer’s market operates at the Boys and Girls Club on West Broadway from May through October, each Wednesday and Saturday. She said they’ve had to put up with some inclement weather over the years, but in 2021, the market didn’t miss a day. Pederson said it is the only established farmer’s market operating in Morrison County.
“The last couple of years, we have definitely increased our vendors and shoppers,” Pederson said.
It averages about 50 vendors throughout the season. On Saturdays during the peak season — July and August — Pederson said the farmer’s market has become a gathering place for community members “to shop, to visit, to share stories, to gain information from the farmers and growers.”
In 2021, the market began accepting SNAP and EBT. It did about $1,000 in sales for people using those payment methods, which she said has increased accessibility. It also implemented the Power of Produce, a youth program that allows children to get a $2 token each week to buy their choice of fresh fruit, vegetables or a plant that produces healthy foods.
In its first year, there were 187 kids registered in the program, which amounted to 501 visits.
“Doing your math, that’s $1,000 into our community to our kids that we gave fresh produce to,” Pederson said.
Pederson said the Little Falls Farmer’s Market is proud to bring local food to customers, promote health within local residents and support producers and the local economy.
The last of the organizations to present, Sprout is a 501(c)3 food hub which specializes in working with family farms in procuring locally grown commodities and distributing them to consumers, hospitals, restaurants and other large institutions, Jones said.
She said Sprout recently finished a USDA grant with two schools in central Minnesota to produce a manual for 30 recipes that have been scaled up for large-scale production. The goal, she said, is to continue to increase use of local foods and provide curriculum for students that demonstrates the value of agricultural economies in central Minnesota.
One of the ways Sprout has worked to provide educational opportunities is through its two fully-licensed kitchens at the Sprout facility, which is located in the old Crestliner building. Jones said providing nutrition education builds the intellectual capacity for the people the organization hopes to serve.
“You cannot just hand somebody who’s lived off of processed foods a rutabaga or a turnip and ask them to produce something that tastes good that they’re going to want to eat,” she said. “For us, nutrition education is a very high priority.”
Another key priority is food access, particularly for low-income individuals who are experiencing food insecurity. Jones said Morrison County’s food insecurity rate is 9.7%. For her, personally, another target area is serving veterans and other service members.
Since Sprout started in 2015, it has provided 1,200 weekly or bi-weekly household assistance boxes free of charge to residents in Region 5, with a focus on Little Falls and Morrison County. Of those, 175 have gone to veterans.
Jones said 100% of the organization’s fundraising dollars go toward the free weekly boxes and household assistance. During the pandemic, Sprout repurposed its mobile food market to deliver those meals to homebound individuals.
It’s something she said also benefits producers.
“As a small family farmer myself, I know how hard it is to grow our food and to get it to market, so I am particularly invested in keeping our agricultural land in ag production and supporting our agricultural economy,” Jones said.
Ultimately, she said all three organizations involved in the collaborative are focused on increasing access to food, providing transportation and addressing transportation barriers, supporting and strengthening the local agricultural economy and using local foods as an economic driver in the area.
She added that Sprout works with more than 150 small, family farms. Some of the organization’s statistics show the incomes of some of those families has increased 10% by having access to market channels and distribution through Sprout.
“Little Falls is incredibly blessed to have an up-and-coming food cooperative, a long-standing farmer’s market — which is more than just access to food but is a community event — and a food hub,” Jones said. “There are only two operational food hubs in the state of Minnesota, and Little Falls houses one of them.”