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Meeting outlines strategies, challenges for creating a sustainable food system

Amber Krogsrud, left, and her mother, Donna, of Willmar, pick hands full of cilantro from a garden plot Thursday at the Willmar Community Garden located along Willmar Avenue Southwest. Community gardens were mentioned during the food charter meeting Thursday in Willmar as one of the ways to provide quality, affordable fresh food. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The list of local barriers to quality, affordable fresh food filled up almost half a whiteboard Thursday morning.

High cost, especially for households on a fixed income. Lack of knowledge in how to prepare fresh fruits and vegetables. A reliance on convenience over nutrition.

But the list of possible solutions was equally long, and organizers of a Minnesota Food Charter meeting Thursday in Willmar hope it can be the beginning of creating a sustainable food system for the region.

"We are a step ahead of many communities," said Christie Kurth, director of the Willmar Area Food Shelf. "We just need to continue to have these types of conversations."

The meeting was one of dozens being held across the state this year by Minnesota Food Charter, a statewide initiative to promote access to healthy, affordable and safe food. The input that's gathered will help identify obstacles, develop strategies to remove the obstacles and foster serious discussion about producing, distributing and consuming healthy food.

A draft of findings and recommendations from the meetings will be released to the public later this year.

About a dozen people attended the meeting Thursday in Willmar, which was hosted by the Willmar Community-Owned Grocery and the Kandiyohi County Area Family YMCA.

They saw many challenges with getting healthy food into the hands of consumers.

Although nutrition messages are widespread, they still aren't reaching many people, said Jan Forkrud. "I think there's less education than people realize."

What's often missing is the how-to, Kurth agreed.

"One thing I see a lot is education -- not knowing what to do with a fresh product," she said. The Food Shelf receives thousands of pounds of donated fresh produce every summer "but our clients don't know how to cook it or how to use it," she said.

Rhonda Otteson works with The Link, an advocacy and resource network for low-income families in New London and Spicer. Many of her clients simply can't afford fresh food, she said. "They are working people who don't have enough income. People know what healthy food is, but they just can't afford it."

Other meeting participants spoke of the change in American food culture, from the home-grown, canned and fresh to packaged convenience or fast foods eaten on the run.

The long-term health, social and economic impact of this shift in culture is not necessarily recognized by the public, said Leroy Petersen, agriculture and renewable energy specialist with the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

"We live in the here and now, so a quick pizza after work makes a lot more sense than taking the time to prepare a good meal," he said.

At the same time, meeting participants saw signs of local progress -- community gardens, farmers markets, the Farm-to-School program in school cafeterias and efforts to establish the Willmar Community-Owned Grocery among them.

Policy changes that support the small farmers who produce local food and improve access to healthy, affordable food need to be a priority, the group agreed. They also wanted to see more efforts that foster a desire among consumers for change.

The challenge is how to coordinate the development of food systems and come up with solutions that work locally, said Kristin Anderson-Rosetti, who works with a regional sustainable food network.

"If we want to see change, how do we effect change in this community?" she said. "This affects all of us. We eat every day."

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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