The Learning Journey

By Rosie Russell

Between Friday, September 8th and Saturday, September 9th, visitors from across the globe traveled to six food justice organizations across the Twin Cities metro to hear their ingredients to a just food system. The learning journey was an opportunity to understand different models used to provide local food services throughout the region, with hopes to later bring those lessons back to their respective local food systems. This article summarizes five key elements shared by these organizations: the PROBLEM, their VISION, where the POWER lies, who the PRIORITY is, and who their AUDIENCE is.

Map of the Twin Cities Metro Area showing the places described in the summary where we visited
The locations of the six organizations across the seven-county Twin Cities Metropolitan Area visited for MFJN / SGM’s Learning Journey

What is the PROBLEM?

People struggle to feed themselves and their families in a region with an abundance of food.

Between getting medicine, paying the next bill, and eating a good meal, which one will take priority today? “These are serious issues,” said David Peeples, at The Food Group, when describing these difficult choices people are forced to make. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these issues only worsened. Food was not staying on shelves, people were isolated, and community health was suffering. All this, happening in a region abundant with grocery stores and agricultural land, only accessible to some. As Michelle Horovitz from MFJN shared, “what’s getting in our way? It’s that people don’t want to give resources.” The funding made available during the pandemic reinforced the immense impact and necessity of food justice organizations to address deep inequities in food access and deliver this basic need to those who were suffering. However, government priorities quickly returned to business as usual. When the pandemic slowed down, so did funding. Today, children are still going hungry, and families are still making difficult choices, yet restaurants and grocery stores dump out huge quantities of food daily. The problem continues, and the system stays the same. A solution exists, its just not funded. 

What is our VISION?

Everyone can afford, access, and enjoy locally grown food that reflects their cultures and values.

M Health Fairview’s Food Hub is a subset of the Community Health and Wellness Hub, where partners come together on a  weekly basis to consolidate, package, and distribute locally sourced, prescribed meal boxes throughout Greater Minnesota. The Food Group & Big River Farms grow and distribute culturally preferable, affordable, and quality food to communities across Minnesota and western Wisconsin by meeting people where they are at. The Good Acre provides a shared space for farmers, food makers, local partners, volunteers, and consumers to access facilities, training, equipment, and other resources to get healthy, locally grown food into communities throughout the region. Growing Resilient on the West Side (GROWS) brings together community members living in the West Side neighborhood of St. Paul to grow food, share recipes, sing songs, and enjoy as many fruits and vegetables as they would like, free to all! West Side Farmers Market connects local farmers and food makers with consumers in the parking lot of a central and beloved restaurant of the West Side neighborhood, the Icy Cup. Community Cooks connects youth from North Minneapolis in the garden, at the kitchen, and around the table to teach skills in growing and preparing good quality food, while fostering positive social connections. 

Who has the POWER?

Local organizations, vendors, and leaders who represent the community’s diverse preferences.

M Health Fairview Food Hub uses healthcare as a means to create a just, sustainable food ecosystem at many different levels. Leaders at M Health Fairview use their connections to actively advocate for policy change that will sustain and grow this service for the community. At The Food Group & Big River Farms, culturally diverse farmers and vendors are connected to a wide range of consumers with unique and diverse food preferences, which is possible because of compassionate leaders who are flexible. For example, when a new vendor asks for immediate help in filling a contract, David Peeples quickly taps into their network and provides these farmers with the resources they need. This leads to long-standing, trusted relationships that are beneficial for both parties. The Good Acre prioritizes making contracts with trusted members of the community who can provide services that their large wholesale buyers are looking for, like skills development training, opposed to hiring internally. Here, resources are used to support a cooperative economy, instead of a competitive one. At GROWS, there is no hierarchy across their different partners. There are informal leaders who are respected and trusted, and they are the ones who work with their community to make decisions. By not relying on centralized power, they can be flexible and adaptive, allowing the community to shape GROWS into what it needs to be. At Community Cooks, youth from North Minneapolis are learning to grow, sell, cook, and distribute food to their neighbors and local businesses. They are building trusted relationships that sustain their stake in the community, and the community’s stake in them.

Who is the PRIORITY?

Those historically excluded from the larger food system, and in search of one that includes them.

At M Health Fairview Food Hub, young adults are provided resources and training to thrive in the local food economy. They are paid eighteen dollars an hour to pack meal boxes, and on a weekly basis they meet with different local businesses and community organizations to learn about career paths that intersect with food systems, while also learning soft skills around networking and relationship building. At The Food Group & Big River Farms, farmers who have been excluded from resources are being given access to land and then trained and educated on how to run a business effectively. This allows them to tap into self-sustaining resources, like bigger contracts enabling them to take the risk on purchasing land, certifications in Organic so they can charge a premium price for their goods, and trusted relationships with networks that will purchase from them into the future. At The Good Acre, local food entrepreneurs like farmers, food makers, and distributors are also being given the training and resources they need to build and sustain themselves. Food makers using the commercial kitchen facilities work together to fill ingredients, lowering their costs, and keeping them local. Wholesale contracts are being made with schools and hospitals and together, a group of farmers are aggregating their produce to fill them. Farmers are receiving an average of 85 cents for every food dollar, opposed to the United States’ average of 8 cents per food dollar. This is putting money into the pockets of the people doing the work, by keeping it local and personal. At GROWS, the communal garden concept welcomes anyone to harvest the food, grow the food, and/or maintain the garden. This is an invitation to the community, especially to those who are used to having no stake or ownership. Because of this, these historically excluded members of the community are not only participating, but growing stronger, better connected, and more supportive of one another. At Community Cooks, youth are welcome to come as they are, and nobody is turned away. They cook meals together, while sharing food, laughter, and warm conversation throughout their community. For many, sitting around the table to eat is a rarity, but here, it is a rule. 

Who is our AUDIENCE?

Future leaders, local partners, and community members who share our vision and can deliver it.

All these organizations are investing time and resources into building a network of people who will sustain and grow the mission through a diversity of professions. Whether it is GROWS investing in the local residents tending the land, The Good Acre investing in local vendors growing a business, or Community Cooks investing in local youth emerging as leaders, each organization is growing a powerful local economy. Their audience has shared values, diverse voices, and a clear vision.   

How does this relate to your own work and life?

What do you still want to know about these community leaders and organizations?

How might we build power together to transform the food system?

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