Shaina Brassard: What's your professional background and how did it lead you to be involved in healthy food access on the Northside?
Starr Carpenter: I'm a grower, I was trained as a grower, but I've also spent many years in the food service industry, managing restaurants, school food service, senior nutrition programs, and then I did six years of sales with Sysco Food Service. So I have that whole background of working with distributors and knowing how that system works. I think that when we're talking about changing our food system, the people involved have that knowledge of all the parts, because it is very much a system that is made up of a lot of moving parts. Food is grown, a broker buys it, it's transported to a warehouse where it's washed and packaged...before it ends up in the grocery store it has gone through many hands, so many that I'm surprised it still looks like food. So by the time it gets to the consumer, that food isn't really fresh. And every time someone handles the food they have to make a profit on it. So the secret to local foods is understanding the whole system, and what parts can you eliminate.
Shortly after moving to Minneapolis, I got involved in the local foods community and [a consultant with Northside Fresh] connected me with the produce distribution going on at Northpoint during the summer. So I went and started talking to people about seeds and how to grow their own tomatoes. The first year I had to drag people over to get them to take some of the seeds, but then the second year I had people ...asking, 'What do you have this week? Do you have any jalapeño? Do you have cilantro?' There is definitely a hunger [for healthy foods] on the Northside.
SB: What are the business opportunities around healthy food in North Minneapolis?
SC: Food is huge. There is so much money in food. We all spend money on food every day. And the statistics about the number of people in North Minneapolis that receive EBT- that is guaranteed money that is in the community being spent on food.
Food in this country has pretty much been relegated to huge agribusiness companies; we've kind of conceded it. And really, we can take some of that back.
SB: It seems like you've been identifying the market gaps and trying to fill them. Tell me about your work at the West Broadway Farmers Market.
SC: Before the regular market season started we had some pre-market plant sales. There's no place in North Minneapolis to buy bedding plants, so we came out and did that. Then we saw that there was a need for fruit at the market, so through a market vendor stipend from Northside Fresh [a North Minneapolis Coalition for Healthy Eating], I was able to get the reseller license, which costs almost $400, just to be able to buy fruit from a wholesaler and sell it at the market. And in the six weeks I've been selling fruit at the market they've seen an increase of almost 25% in the amount of EBT that is being used at the market. People are also using Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) coupons, which they otherwise would have trouble using at all [FMNP aims to provide fresh, unprepared, locally grown fruits and vegetables to WIC participants, and to expand the awareness, use of, and sales at farmers' markets.]
We're also doing an aggregation table so that growers can bring in food they have and I sell it for them. It can be anyone, from backyard growers with excess produce they can't eat to urban farmers. And for the four weeks since I started, I've sold out every week.
Now what we're doing at the market with the aggregation table we're looking at as a model for the City's Healthy Corner Stores campaign implemented by Appetite for Change. One of the major challenges with that program is simply that, like most residents in North Minneapolis, the corner stores do not have access to healthy produce to stock in their stores; because they need small amounts, it's not profitable for these big distributor companies to stop and drop off. So by coming up with a simpler model focused on those smaller accounts, we can make it more profitable, because we don't need a large warehouse and all these big trucks. We could aggregate all of the produce from community gardens and small-scale growers in North Minneapolis and distribute it. So it actually could create entrepreneurial opportunities for people.
To start with, the idea is that the corner store owners can come to the market aggregation table to buy produce to sell in their stores, and at the market we advertise the corner stores where you can get the same produce during the week at a similar price, and also use EBT. Then the stores will get known for having quality produce, therefore they're selling more produce, therefore the store owners are saying, 'Wow, people do want this stuff.' People want produce. People have gotten the message. We all know we need to eat healthier. But the question we're trying to answer with action is 'How?'
What I say is, 'Imagine that we had a pile of food. How would we get it to people? What are the different strategies?'
SB: You're also an editor of the newspaper, Growing Pathways.
SC: Yes, we just printed our third edition, which is also available at growingpathways.com! There're so many issues around food, and what we're trying to do is get information out there.
Growing Pathways has been very successful and "growing" rapidly. In addition to the website, check out their Kick Starter Campaign to learn more and support this new Northside based initiative. You can also visit Starr Carpenter at the West Broadway Farmers Market at 900 West Broadway Ave. on Fridays from 3-7pm.