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Anchor initiatives: Local food means business for local neighborhoods

“Our goal is to improve economic vitality for both anchor institutions and their communities,” said Ellen Watters of the Central Corridor Anchor Partnership.

Stone’s Throw Farms grows vegetables on vacant lots in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

At first glance, the food vendor gathering held last summer at the the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union felt like a preview of the State Fair. 

You could sample Sweet Science ice cream, a scrumptious product that takes advantage of new food production innovations. Immigrant entrepreneurs proudly displayed mouthwatering Bar-B-Q pork buns from Keefer Court bakery and authentic Mexican tamales from La Loma restaurant. Sunrise Market, founded a century ago in Hibbing, announced its new line of gluten-free pasta.

And you could munch carrots from Stone’s Throw Farms, grown on inner-city vacant lots, and nibble Garden Fresh Farms’ microgreens, grown hydroponically at an old warehouse in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood.

Wait a minute! No one eats root vegetables or microgreens at the State Fair.

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True. This event was not geared to fair-goers but rather to food service managers and chefs at nine colleges and seven medical facilities in the Central Corridor between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. These anchor institutions together spend more than $25 million annually on food for their 67,000 employees and 115,000 students as well as visitors.

If small companies like these based in the corridor could gain even a small portion of this $25 million business, it would boost their success and the vitality of the communities they call home. One new local job is created for every $140,000 increase in local food consumption, according to a new national study quoted by Ellen Watters of the Central Corridor Anchor Partnership.

“Our goal is to improve economic vitality for both anchor institutions and their communities,” Watters told the crowd as they snacked on chicken tamales, dark chocolate sorbet and, yes, microgreens.

How anchor institutions can strengthen neighborhoods

“Anchor” describes institutions that are rooted in a particular locale, and want to make sure their communities remains stable and safe.

“Colleges and hospitals are embedded in their community and have a real stake in seeing that it thrives,” explains Augsburg College President Paul Pribbenow, who is chair of the Central Corridor Anchor Partnership. “This is not just what we give to the community, it’s about our shared interests and mutual benefits.”

Most colleges and medical centers throughout the 11-mile Central Corridor have come together under the banner of the Central Corridor Anchor Partnership (CCAP) to broaden their collective impact by purchasing more local goods and services, hiring more local people and pursuing other initiatives to strengthen their communities. In June, many of them cooperated on a special transit pass to encourage employees to ride the just-opened Green Line, which runs the length of the corridor. A similar program was launched in early September introducing college students to the advantages of light rail.

One of the nation’s most ambitious anchor initiatives is flourishing in Cleveland, where three new worker-owned cooperatives on the city’s struggling East Side provide services to nearby institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals: 1) The Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, which washes more than 10 million pounds of sheets and towels yearly for local hospitals; 2) Ohio Cooperative Solar, which installs solar panels on institutional, commercial and government buildings as well as offering free weatherization programs for low-income residents; and 3) Green City Growers Cooperative, a 3.25-acre greenhouse growing hydroponic lettuce and basil year-round for hospital and college kitchens.

Other notable anchor local food success stories include:

Morris, Minnesota: University of Minnesota-Morris. This 2,000-student campus got a head start with local food beginning in 2001, and now boasts 30 percent of all food sourced regionally (250 miles or less).  “We wanted our purchasing dollars to make a difference in rural economic development,” explains Sandra Olson-Loy, Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs. “Also we wanted fresher, tastier food. No more eating pink, hard tomatoes in the middle of August when all around us were juicy beautiful ones.”

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Fifty percent regional food is now their goal, Olson-Loy says, and eventually 50 percent local, which will mean $250 million a year flowing into Western Minnesota’s economy.

Minneapolis-St. Paul: Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools. Two of the state’s largest school districts will feature homegrown lunches once a week throughout the school year on Minnesota Thursdays.  The program debuted Sept. 4 with hot dogs from Cannon Falls, buns from St. Cloud, cucumbers from Northfield, corn on the cob from Apple Valley and watermelon from Elk River. The goal is that most of the food on students’ plates each Thursday will be grown or raised within 75 miles of the Twin Cities. 

Burlington, Vermont: Fletcher Allen Health Care. Forty-two percent of the food budget for this health care system serving one million people in Vermont and neighboring upstate New York goes to producers within a day’s drive.  That amounts to $1.5 million every year. Burlington itself — with winters comparable to Minnesota — is a locavore leader, with 70 percent of food in local schools grown locally during the fall season. That extinguishes the myth that local food only make sense in warm places like California.

Gambier, Ohio: Kenyon College. Thirty-eight percent of food served in dining halls is sourced locally, and during the harvest season 70 percent of produce comes from farms right in the county.

Tackling the challenges head-on

The economic, nutritional and culinary advantages of local food are so apparent that it’s difficult to find anyone opposed to the idea. But the devil is in the details, as food service managers and local food producers attest.

“I’m looking to see what we can do to get some of these local vendors involved,” says Steve Kroeker, operations manager at Regions Hospital/HealthPartners. After an earlier Vendor Fair last February, the hospital’s kitchen added tamales from La Loma, greens from Garden Fresh Farms, and tortillas from La Perla Tortillas to the menu, and serves locally-processed Bergin’s nut mixes at catered events.

It’s a slow process, Kroeker admits. It can take as long as eight to 10 months to negotiate with the vendors, make sure they can produce food in large enough quantities and in time to meet deadlines, then incorporate the vendors into the distribution system of the hospital’s food service company Sodexo, and arrange the proper liability coverage. A few companies Kroeker wants to work with cannot meet the strict liability requirements needed by HealthPartners and Sodexo.

When asked if it’s worth all the trouble, Kroeker answers: “Absolutely. As an organization, we want to do this as much as we can. Our core mission is all about supporting the community in health and education.”

Karen DeVet, district manager for Aramark, the company in charge of producing up to 100,000 meals a week at the UMN Twin Cities campus, expresses the same enthusiasm and experiences the same challenges. “We are seeking local suppliers who have food in the quantity we need at an affordable price. We are committed to increasing our local purchasing in support of community partners.”

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Augsburg College sources 20-30 percent of its food locally during harvest season, some of it coming from on-campus gardens, notes Josh Ahrens of A’viands, the Roseville-based company handling food service for the school. A contract with Bix Produce, who works with many hydroponic farms in the region, keeps the supply of some local vegetables continuing throughout winter and spring. 

Even with only 4000 students, Ahrens says, the scale of their food needs can be difficult for small firms. “Not everyone can deliver 200 chickens by the time we need them. ”

But he believes mounting public interest in locally grown foods will overcome the challenges. “This started out as something trendy,” Ahrens observes, “but as more and more people get involved, local food is growing stronger and stronger.”