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Slow food contest in Willmar, Minn., helps generate support for community grocery

WILLMAR -- The contents of 15 crockpots steamed and bubbled Tuesday night at the Willmar Community-Owned Grocery's first slow-food festival.

Linda Mathiasen, a member of the fledgling food co-op's organizing board, was enthusiastic about the chefs, the aromas of simmering pork, chicken and baked beans, and the 200-some people who visited the event to eat and mingle.

"It's a time to slow down and come together around food, to cook slowly, eat slowly and cook with whole foods," Mathiasen said.

The effort to create a cooperative grocery store in Willmar taps into a growing national movement toward food that's fresh, locally produced and healthful.

The full-service store will emphasize local foods, establishing a market where customers can shop for fresh meat and produce and growers have an opportunity to sell their products.

Since launching the project this past year, organizers have come a long way.

They have developed a business plan, started recruiting members and even have their own brand-new website at

The organizing board met this week to review four potential locations for the store, all in downtown Willmar.

Organizers still have considerable work ahead of them, though.

For one thing, they need more members. About 80 have signed up so far and paid a one-time $200 membership fee, Mathiasen said. But 200 are needed in order to build enough financial capacity to meet fiscal and grant requirements -- and to create a core group of consumers who will be invested in shopping at the food co-op.

"We're moving along very well," she said. "We've only been attracting memberships for four months. But we really need to get member owners to show that there's a demand there and an interest."

The membership campaign was recently expanded to include founding business supporters who can help with either financial or in-kind support.

One of those founding supporters, North American State Bank, loaned the use of the bank's lobby for the Tuesday night slow-food festival.

The event had a dual purpose: demonstrating what cooks can do with food prepared from scratch, and spreading the word about the community-owned grocery.

"There are lots of new faces here," Mathiasen said as she surveyed the crowd. "It's been amazing."

Many of the cooks incorporated locally produced ingredients in their crockpot recipes. Jean Geselius used locally grown herbs to spice a slow-cooked casserole of baked beans.

"This is a family favorite. It serves a lot," she said.

Mary Catherwood brought Moroccan chicken, a recipe she borrowed from her sister and then adapted.

Samples disappeared quickly. "A lot of people have been through," Catherwood said. "It's nice to create an event like this that everybody can have fun at. The whole COG is going to be people coming together over some kind of interest in food."

Judges for the crockpot challenge were Willmar Mayor Frank Yanish, professional caterer Nancy Johnson and Oaks chef Eric Nazerenus.

Yanish said he wants to see downtown Willmar revitalized, a goal that could be helped along with the opening of a community-owned grocery.

Plus he has been looking for "some education on what this is all about," he said during a break in the judging.

Helping people understand the concept of a food cooperative is an important step in getting them to support it, Mathiasen agreed.

Organizers were buoyed recently by the news that their project has been chosen for a presentation next April at the National Main Streets Conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The conference, to be held in Baltimore, is a showcase for preservation-based economic development and community revitalization.

Mathiasen and Beverly Dougherty, project coordinator for the Willmar Design Center, will lead a session on "Growing a Farmer's Market into a Cooperatively Owned Grocery and Deli."

"We were thrilled to be chosen," Mathiasen said. "It'll help us get our local community excited and help set the stage for the future."

For more information about the Willmar Community-Owned Grocery, call 320-444-1523 or visit

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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