Building a market for local foods in Cook County

January 5, 2016 Comments Off on Building a market for local foods in Cook County

Feeding ourselves in the tip of the Arrowhead in Cook County is becoming more and more important. The third iteration of the Statewide Health Improvement Program supported a number of efforts in the northernmost county of the Northland to making healthy food more accessible.

A new weekday farmers market started in 2015 in Grand Marais showcased 8-10 local producers every Thursday offering gorgeous vegetables, luscious strawberries, warm baked goods, herbs, syrup, jellies, pickles and more. The market attracted about 100 customers each week who lined up before the opening bell at the Cook County Community Center. The new Thursday local food market was hosted at the Cook County Community Center and was organized by the Cook County Extension and the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic as a way to increase access to healthy, local foods for our community members and to create a new income opportunity for local food producers.

The economic value of local food production was also emphasized by the 2015 Green Dollars Survey. Businesses that purchase or serve foods in Cook County and Grand Portage were surveyed by the Northwoods Food Project in a cooperative effort with the University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, Cook County Chamber of Commerce, Cook County Whole Foods Co-op, Cook County-Grand Marais Joint Economic Development Authority and Sawtooth Mountain Clinic to understand the economic importance of food. The Green Dollars survey demonstrated that in Cook County, a significant portion of our documented economic activity is tied to food. Businesses reported purchasing $1.3 million of Cook County-produced foods, while their total food purchases are estimated around $20 million. Cook County businesses identified a desire to purchase more locally produced foods, and local food producers also reported a willingness to expand production if stable markets are identified. Businesses and producers identified structural barriers to more local food sales such as high land prices and lack of agricultural infrastructure, and lack of a local food distribution system.  The survey data indicated a potential for local non-profits, businesses, and government to work together to reduce some of these barriers in order to capture more local food dollars to expand our local economic opportunity. The Green Dollars survey identified areas for further research, but one thing is clear from survey data: food plays a major role in our local economy.

The Cook County Land Use Guide Plan revision conducted from 2014- 2015 also identifies support for small-scale agriculture as a desired future use of Cook County lands. Further exploration of ways that county government can support or remove barriers to local agriculture are likely to be outcomes of the Land Use Guide Plan revision process.

Also significant in 2015 for local food production has been a major initiative by the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to increase local food production to improve the health, wellbeing and self-determination of the Grand Portage community. In 2015, Grand Portage created a new position of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty Coordinator, which was filled by Andy Schmidt, a longtime employee and community garden advocate. Schmidt and his partners on the Grand Portage Agriculture and Food Sovereignty Committee are working with the community and Reservation Tribal Council to create a strategic plan for feeding their community. The plan envisions tribally grown vegetables in summer meals programs, bison as a new protein source, berries and an apple orchard, and expanded school gardens, all as sources of healthy food for band members, a means of local jobs and connecting youth to new opportunities for meaningful occupation in the Grand Portage community. The Grand Portage Food Sovereignty initiative aims to support the community in several areas – providing jobs and keeping food dollars in the local community and providing a safe, healthy food supply for all community members.

After a very productive season for local food access in 2015, what is on the horizon for 2016? We can expect continued community demand and interest in purchasing local foods, and increased partnerships between local food producers, business and government to support local foods. Cook County and Grand Portage have a strong history of small scale agriculture and food production.  In 2016, we expect to go forward to the past, as local food production continues to grow as a significant part of our local economy, our livelihoods and our way of life on the North Shore.