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As more people look to local foods, market reaches a 'tipping point'

Chuck Waibel, of Milan, describes Tuesday how he extends the growing season for garden greens with an energy-efficient greenhouse that requires about $100 worth of propane to supplement the heat of the sun through the winter season. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

MILAN -- For years the school lunch menu was as simple as pizza on Monday, chicken nuggets on Tuesday and beef nachos on Wednesday.

"Over and over again," said Jeannine Bowman, school lunch director for the Benson and Morris schools.

She upset the apple cart by replacing much of the processed, institutional foods with locally grown foods -- everything from apples to bison to zucchini -- prepared from scratch on site. The variety has won lots of applause.

"Kids like different things," said Bowman, who knows their tastes better than they. She recently mixed up locally raised vegetables she had kept in the freezer to make the best meatloaf she had ever served. "It was so chock full of vegetables the kids didn't even realize they were eating it."

Lots of us are eating more local foods: Efforts to develop a local foods economy in the region has reached what one person termed a "tipping point." That was evident Tuesday in Milan, as 110 people attended a full-day "From Farm to Fork" workshop to discuss how a local foods economy can continue to grow. Organizers had initially hoped to see 25 people.

Instead, producers from the South Dakota border to New London, and potential customers from Wal-Mart in Montevideo to Prairie's Edge Casino Resort, showed up.

"It's definitely more mainstream," said keynote speaker Mary Jo Forbord, a registered dietitian who also operates a grass-fed beef farm with her husband, Luverne, near Starbuck.

Forbord and others advocate a local foods economy both for its health and economic benefits.

Farmers markets and direct, producer-to-consumer sales are growing in the region, according to speakers at the forum. Dave and Avis Swenson, Swenson Orchards, of Montevideo, discovered the market for fresh, local foods just a few years after starting to produce apples in 1975. Instead of hauling apples in large volumes to wholesale buyers hundreds of miles away, Dave said they started to put the product up for sale locally.

They have never turned back. "We're introducing great people to great food," he said.

Today, they are expanding the market for their apples to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and even day care providers. Swenson Orchard apples are a popular menu item in the Dawson-Boyd Schools until the supply runs out around Christmas each year, said Peggy Hill, food service director.

Hill said expanding the school menu takes more planning. She and Bowman each buy from about one dozen different producers to supply their schools. "People I have been talking to have been very willing to plant for us," Hill said.

Producers and consumers are connecting, but there are still obstacles. Many restaurants still mistakenly believe that local, fresh foods cannot be sold by them. In truth, every farmer is an approved supplier in the eyes of the state. Raw, local foods are perfectly legal for sale in restaurants, said Kris Lee, food inspector with Countryside Public Health.

Julie Rote, a registered dietitian from Spicer, is working to get the word out to restaurants in the Benson and Montevideo areas as part of the Statewide Health Improvement Program. She is helping restaurants upgrade their menus by adding local, healthy items.

Rote cautions that there is a ways to go, as many restaurants are hesitant to give up the "fast food, white food, junk food" that has filled menus for so many years. Yet she also pointed out the growing interest she is seeing for healthy foods -- including interest from young people -- and from the restaurants who know a growing market when they see it. "I hope it spreads like wildfire," she said.

The Milan forum was sponsored by Countryside Public Health and the Statewide Health Improvement Program.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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