Let’s Root for Rutabagas

February 21, 2018

By Marlise Riffel, Rutabaga Project

In the spring of 2013, the idea for the Rutabaga Project to increase access to local healthy food was born. With funding available for local work around food access, two local agencies came together to jointly address this issue in Virginia, Minnesota: Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency (AEOA) is the local multicounty anti-poverty agency and Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability (IRPS) is a regional nonprofit with a focus on local food. Each is a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a long history in the community.

AEOA was interested in “healthy” food for low-income people; IRPS was interested in “local” food for all people. Each agency “gave” a little so that the joint goals would encompass local healthy food for low-income people. In the beginning, after two tries in 2013 and 2014, our funding applications were turned down.

In July of 2015, we decided to try for another source to fund the Rutabaga Project. We submitted an application to the University of Minnesota Extension in August, 2015 and were funded. Day-to-day operations began at the end of January 2016. The main work of the project was to bring together people in three target neighborhoods in Virginia, Minnesota, where rates of food insecurity are high. Over the course of the summer and fall, local neighborhood groups met and talked about problems related to accessing local healthy food. We held focus groups in the three target neighborhoods followed by four community “meal and conversation” events using the World Café model for “dialog to action” with graphic facilitation. We posed this question: What are the barriers to accessing local healthy food? Participants identified 17 barriers and 24 strategies to overcome them.

During this same time, AEOA and IRPS approached Essentia Health and the Virginia Community Foundation to begin implementing some of the strategies that had been identified. The Virginia Market Square farmers’ market began with foundation funding in June and, with Essentia funding, began to accept EBT payments and provide match incentives in August. Growing Together Community Gardens became a reality with Essentia’s help and donated city property. Meanwhile, Rutabaga Project participants continued to meet in “dialog to action” conversations and finally developed a list of prioritized solutions to local food access in October 2016. Here they are in abbreviated form:

  • 1) Promote children and parents together
    • at farmers’ market
    • gardening together
  • 2) Transportation for food
    • regular dependable rides to grocery stores, farmers’ market, food shelf
    • delivery of groceries from the above
  • 3) Food kits/meal-in-a-bag to promote nutrition and use of unfamiliar produce
    • recipes and education and garden kits to grow new foods
  • 4) Much more marketing for initiatives, unique ads and promotions, and getting the word out
  • 5) Gardening mentors for community gardens
  • 6) Healthy food sold at nontraditional locations

It is now February 2018 and we have been able to fully implement many of the priorities. Last summer we sponsored a Power of Produce club for children at our new farmers’ market and a family gardening program with gardening mentors and garden kits through Growing Together Community Gardens, which expanded to 70 plots in its second year. We implemented an experimental transportation program for groceries that we are still refining to meet community needs. We’re starting a modified “meal kit” program this spring with Natural Harvest Food Coop and the SNAP-Ed program. We got a grant for marketing last year and were able to purchase print ads, Facebook promotions, and flyers. And we worked with Minnesota Eats to initiate “Virginia Digs Vegetables,” with our first convenience store now offering healthier food! What remains to be tackled is the grocery delivery option, but we just learned that funds for mobile food shelf programs will be available this coming year through a state agency, so that is on our agenda.

Folks often ask about the “rutabaga” in our name. Rutabagas are native to our area, very nutritious, and they send out strong roots wherever they’re planted. We think it fits.

The Rutabaga Project aims to get more nutritious and local food to everyone in the City of Virginia, Minnesota and beyond! Through community engagement Iron Range residents are invited to get involved, share ideas and determine solutions for making nutritious and local food accessible and affordable for everyone. Together we will build a healthier food system for all members of our community

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of The Healthy Food Access Portal.