By Heidi Klingelhofer, Aitkin County Statewide Health Improvement Partnership intern
When consumers, producers, distributors, and purchasers come together, it is amazing the things that can be accomplished. On Friday, December 1st, 2017 nearly sixty people from Northeastern Minnesota came together at Messiah Lutheran Church in Mountain Iron to discuss a common goal: increasing access to locally-sourced foods. Among the attendees were local farmers, dietitians, physicians, public health employees, and healthcare employees, to name a few, all of whom are passionate about improving the health and vitality of their communities.
David Abazs of Round River Farm in Finland, MN kicked off the event by giving us a background on NE Minnesota local food and agriculture. David gave great perspective on just how much money would be going back into our communities if all the fertile land in our area was farmed and if everyone purchased locally-sourced foods, not to mention the number of jobs it would create. Next on the list were several short, six-minute “SPARK talks.” Hannah Colby, Public Health Educator and SHIP Coordinator for Aitkin County, gave a quick overview of the Farm to School Program that has been in the Aitkin County schools for a couple of years now. Hannah discussed the process that takes place each year to make this possible and presented numbers on just how much money has gone back to local farmers in the small amount of time this program has been in place. Deb Kaivola and Claudia of the Messiah Community Kitchen in Mountain Iron, MN then gave a quick presentation on their local community garden and kitchen, and how that has brought their community together and allowed people opportunities they otherwise would not have had. In their words, “Food brings people together,” and that is exactly what their mission is. Next on the list of SPARK talks was Jane Jewett, local farmer from WillowSedge Farm in Palisade, MN. Jane discussed what it is like to be a farmer in NE Minnesota today, as well as some of the challenges she faces on a daily basis. To wrap up the SPARK talks, three employees of Essentia Health, Emily Anderson and John Vidmar of Duluth and Leah Oslin of Deer River, were able to give a healthcare perspective on the topic at hand.
Attendees were asked to envision a future where we enjoy a vibrant regional food economy, producing and consuming twenty percent of our food needs locally. The next hour was spent discussing what is missing from that food access scenario now. Some of the things discussed included social inequalities, cost of locally-sourced foods vs. mass-produced products, lack of transportation to local food stores, a deficit in local producers, lack of interest and/or awareness by consumers, not enough time to prepare meals, lack of food skills, not enough storage space for perishable foods, zoning issues, and cost of inspection, among numerous others. We were then challenged to work with one another to write up an action plan to combat one of these things.
Not only did great discussions take place that day, but incredible food was had by all as well. The day started off with a locally-sourced breakfast made by Erik Heimark, local farmer and owner of Maple Ridge Produce in Aitkin, MN. Lunch included foods from several local farmers, including pork from WillowSedge Farm in Palisade, MN, sprouts from 2 Maples Farms in Iron, basil, bell peppers, cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes from Bay Produce in Superior, garlic from Bear River Farm in Cook, collard greens from Fat Chicken Farm in Embarrass, red onions from Food Farm in Wrenshall, apples from Gilby’s Nursery and Orchard in Aitkin, garlic and rosemary olive oil bread from Karl’s Bread in Mountain Iron, coffee from Miller-Mohawk Bean Co. in Aurora, carrots and yellow onions from Owl Forest Farm in Forbes, bison from Savanna River Bison in Floodwood, butternut squash from Mora and cream from Dahl’s Sunrise Dairy in Babbitt.
It is not easy to make large and systematic changes in our communities, but boy, is it ever inspiring to be in a room full of others who share in your passion to make that change. Each of us may feel too small to have an impact, but “food brings people together,” and that is exactly what it did that day.
Heidi Klingelhofer is a medical student at Des Moines University pursuing a dual degree of Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) and a master’s degree in Public Health . Her internship includes assessing interest with institutions to purchase locally sourced food. Farm to Institution has already started at the hospital, Riverwood Healthcare Center, and the goal is to expand the program in the county.
Here’s a little bit about why Heidi chose to do dual-degree: “I chose to pursue a dual-degree and get my Master’s in Public Health over and above my medical degree because I feel there is only so much I can do in my future career as a physician. I can tell people all day long that they should be making healthy choices, but unless they have the means to do so, those changes cannot and will not happen. I wanted to learn not only about individual health, but community health and wellness as well, and how I can make an impact on both. I believe that healthcare systems and public health departments should work closely with one another, with the common goal of bettering their community and the people who live there. I hope to be the bridge that brings those two together.”