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Needs, gaps in creating a local food system are study points

WILLMAR -- Building a base of local food growers ought to be one of the first steps toward creating a viable local food system in Kandiyohi County, a newly released study has found.

The interest is there, said Donna Chollett, the study's author.

"People are ready to jump on that bandwagon, I think. I think that you've got the capabilities to really build something good," Chollett said.

The study was presented Thursday to the Kandiyohi County Local Food System Steering Committee, a volunteer group that's working on increasing access to fresh, locally grown healthful food.

Committee members sought the assessment to help them set priorities and decide on a future direction.

Chollett, of the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota in Morris, collected data and conducted surveys and interviews with a wide range of sources.

They included farmers market participants to social service agencies and schools.

One of her key findings: Although there's a growing demand for locally grown food, there are few local, sustainable farms in Kandiyohi County and only one farm that's certified as an organic producer.

"Why aren't they here? Why do we have this gap?" Chollett asked.

Her study uncovered other gaps as well.

Even if the number of local producers were to increase, an efficient distribution system for getting locally grown food to where it's needed -- to the cafeterias of local schools, for instance -- is missing.

Reliance on fast food and processed food has left many people without the skills or know-how to prepare fresh food, the study found.

One of the findings that intrigued Chollett the most was the number of shoppers at the Willmar farmers market who don't have young children.

"Why? I think it's a real important question to answer," she said.

There's also a lack of awareness among many people about the hidden costs of nonlocal food, Chollett said, citing studies that put the share of transportation, processing and distribution at up to 80 percent of food costs.

"I think what we need is some way to educate the public," she said.

Chollett's study makes several recommendations:

* Increase community engagement by inviting diverse groups to become involved in developing a local food system.

* Identify and tackle projects with a specific focus -- for instance, establishing a farmers marketing association to help connect growers and buyers, or launching a training program for farmers or a greenhouse for producing fresh food year round.

* Look at ways of providing fresh local food to organizations such as food shelves, to help ensure that healthful food is available to children, the elderly and the low-income.

* Promote opportunities for Kandiyohi County's ethnic population to produce and distribute food.

* Support farmers in becoming producers of local food. The average age of a Kandiyohi County farmer is 59, Chollett noted.

"What's going to happen to those farms as those farmers retire? How do we preserve that land?" she said.?