The names adorning businesses along Pelican Rapids’ main street provide a window into the variety of foods that are available in town. There’s Taqueria Escobar, a Mexican restaurant; Dawo Halal Market, a shop for Muslims; Larry’s Supermarket, which has something for everyone; the Muddy Moose café, where I got a cup of coffee on a recent visit.
So it only makes sense that Pelican Rapids was one of 16 small cities across the country chosen in 2020 for a federal program called Local Foods, Local Places that promotes local food systems.
The idea, outlined in this community report prepared with the help of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was to identify markets for small producers, get fresh food into the hands of more residents and promote the city’s main street attractions. A bonus is the variety of foods that can be found in this very diverse community, which is home to many Latinos, Bosnians, Somalis and other recent immigrants and refugees.
The focal point of the project is a farmers market where a dozen vendors have been selling food this summer, some of it from a community garden that is rich with a variety of produce – from corn and potatoes to green peppers and tomatillos.
“A lot of people bring knowledge about the foods in their home countries here,” said Emily Reno, who works on food systems for the West Central Initiative, one of the partners in the project. “I think that is super important. Wherever you are from, you should always be able to grow food and connect with your own culture through foods.”
I visited Pelican Rapids seven years ago to write about immigrants from Bosnia whose artwork had given them a sense of identity and connection in this town of 2,500 people. Food is another cultural outlet, of course, though it can be a challenge for some groups to promote and sell the food they grow or, conversely, to find the ingredients they need.
The federal program provided the community with planning assistance, technical know-how and ideas for how local agencies can engage the public in the project. The West Central Initiative, meanwhile, provided $9,000 to jump-start the farmers’ market.
Argie Manolis, the director of the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota-Morris, said that growers in the region who are producing culturally specific foods aren’t necessarily linked to the economy in any coordinated way. “How can we be thinking about food as a connector among people and among cultures and also as an economic development tool?” she asked.
That’s what college student Lily Sugimura has been thinking about. She’s working for the local initiative this summer through an internship sponsored by the Center for Small Towns. One of her tasks is to link people to food options like the farmers market, something she does through Facebook and brochures or by simply meeting people at The Welcome Place, a nonprofit social services agency where she is headquartered.
She is also taking video of the local produce that can now be found in the city’s grocery stores. Her thoughts so far? “Food just shows how interconnected our communities really are,” she said.
An ‘international’ marketplace
The most visible expressions of the localism push are the farmers market, which is open each Friday afternoon in the city’s downtown, and the community garden that sits near a farm on the edge of town.
The farmers market has proved to be popular, attracting about 150 people, Sugimura said. Meanwhile, about 40 people are making use of the community garden, paying $20 per growing season to raise vegetables in 30-by-26-foot plots.
Jose and Aurora Escobar own Taqueria Escobar, the Mexican restaurant, which opened more than a decade ago as a food truck. Jose Escobar said they buy some ingredients at the farmers market and grow their own vegetables for their salsa in a small plot. But, for the most part, they must order food for their restaurant from food distributors based in Fargo and Sioux Falls. Some of it comes from Mexico.
They would buy more of their ingredients locally if they could and appreciate Pelican Rapids’ focus on the region’s growers, Jose Escobar said.
Reno, of the West Central Initiative, refers to Pelican Rapids grandly as “an international cultural destination marketplace.” Now, she said, the question is, “How do we help all members of the community celebrate their food cultures in that marketplace? In those restaurants? In that farmers market?”