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New cafe serves localvores’ needs — and lessons in food economics

For most Twin Cities localvores — that is, those who try to eat only food produced locally — the idea of committing to their pledge from November through April is about as attractive as the muddy slush puddled on sidewalks.

Farmers’ markets are closed, gardens are snowed over, and the word “fresh” is detached from Minnesota’s cuisine vernacular.

This winter, though, localvores — as well as wannabes and anyone interested in learning more about the economics of food — have a new hangout: Common Roots Café in southwest Minneapolis.

Food is restaurateur’s entrée into bigger issues
When owner Danny Schwartzman opened the place last July, it was immediately praised (and rightfully so) as a place to get a fine handmade bagel. But Schwartman, a community organizer and localvore himself, was just as interested in getting people to talk about the origins and implications of a meal.

“Food is really about the easiest thing I can think of to get people to think about these bigger issues,” Schwartman said. “You don’t have to be into (eating local) to come and eat here. But you can talk about where a tomato came from. There aren’t a lot of places where you can access the bigger issues without scaring people away.”

When Schwartman says bigger issues, he’s talking about things like the use of pesticides and farmers’ responsibility to manage their land. Things like the economics of shipping food —organic or conventional — across the country or the world. And things like how all of that affects the real bottom line: how good the food tastes.

So Schwartzman set a goal for Common Roots: To serve food created, as much as possible, from local ingredients. To achieve it, his buyers get food from a combination of sources: straight from the farmers, as well as statewide and regional distributors like the Southeast Minnesota Food Network and Organic Valley.

In December, about 60 percent of the food Common Roots prepared — including such items as oils and spices — came from ingredients produced in Minnesota, Schwartzman said. That percentage includes all of the café’s meat, as well as the majority of its grain (as in the bagels and breads) and dairy products.

Cooks had to rethink menu for winter
Keeping the percentage high in winter, Schwartman said, just meant that the cooks had to rethink the menu a bit: applesauce instead of apples, squash and wild rice instead of tomatoes and other summer vegetables.

Local is a word Schwartzman takes seriously. There’s the name of the café, of course. And when he and others renovated the building this spring, they used local materials whenever possible, such as handcrafting the dining tables from wood taken from the floor of an old Minnesota barn.

Schwartzman doesn’t have all the answers, and neither do any of Common Roots’ patrons. But that’s part of the café’s mission, too, to help community members keep the conversation going. That happens with regular events (detailed on the website) that feature farmers, policymakers and other speakers.

But more importantly, it happens with every bagel, cup of coffee and plate of food.

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