Well before "eating local" became a mainstream mantra for conscientious food lovers everywhere, Seward Co-op in Minneapolis has nurtured this philosophy for years by establishing long-lasting relationships with local growers and producers, and providing customers with easily accessible information about the people and places behind the food that they buy.
“The strength behind our local food initiative is getting people revved up and being able to have that connection, knowing the person who brought it to your table,” said Allison Meyer, Seward’s communications specialist, as she pointed out the blue "Local" logo on shelf tags that identify the nearby farms and companies from which the products were sourced. But now, the co-op wants to make that connection even closer: this summer, Seward launched the Know Our Grower program, which invites customers to meet the local farmers whose dedicated efforts keep the market well-stocked with fresh and healthy food.
The series kicked off in June with back-to-back visits from Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farm, who currently graces the cover of Sprout, Seward’s award-winning bimonthly newsletter, and continues in August with Featherstone Fruits and Vegetables and Gardens of Eagan. Sharing samples of their products as they chat in a casual setting by the produce section, these farmers and their customers can connect amidst the fruits and vegetables in which they share an interest. That kind of interaction is often seen at farmers’ markets, where nothing stands between growers and shoppers except a table laden with fresh food. But in a retail store, there’s an extra degree of separation between them that Seward hopes to dissolve with their new event.
“Other stores bring in local vendors at some point or another and highlight their products, but to this scale, as far as I know, [our] program is really the only one in the co-ops right now in the Twin Cities,” explained Allison. She noted that on the outside of their building is the tagline, From Farmer to Franklin, referring to Seward’s location. “That’s the root behind the program – not just saying it’s from a farm but really demonstrating it and showing you the farmer.”
As part of its longstanding goal to promote eating local, Seward has held a Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) Fair each spring for nearly a decade, bringing growers to the store to talk about CSA’s value to customers and themselves, and to encourage them to invest in a local farm. The success of these one-day events is a highlight of Seward’s service to the community. “We’re really proud about the energy that the CSA Fair generates at the beginning of the year,” Allison noted. “Carrying that whole concept through the summer until the end of October, we’re also really proud that Know Our Grower bookends the local growing season in that way.”
This new event actually sprouted from a more conventional retail concept – the sidewalk sale. During the season, Seward Co-op would receive special deals from local farms for certain produce in larger quantities, which the market would then pass on to shoppers as limited-time specials. Know Our Grower was the "midnight idea" of produce manager Travis Lusk, who wanted to help develop a longer relationship between the store, its farmers, and its shoppers. “It’s not necessarily a 'day of' kind of thing that we’re looking for as success,” he explained. “We’ve known a lot of these growers for a long time and it’s a busy time for them, but everyone was willing to commit [to the program] right away. They also believe in growing value.”
Allison added, “It’s hard to for us to ask our growers in the middle of their strenuous growing season, ‘Can you spend an afternoon at our store?' but I know a lot of them really appreciate that person to person interaction.” And Seward’s customers reciprocate that feeling: feedback from the June and July events has been very enthusiastic. When asked why it was so important to encourage these connections, Allison’s response was heartfelt: “It’s going back to our roots and not being as dependent on the system of industrialized food that has taken hold in Western culture. For thousands of years, humans have produced and sourced so much of their own diet, but recently our food has become so commodified. So many different kinds of food are produced by so few companies. For our customers, I think, getting away from that and getting back to taking control of your diet and your food sources is a lot of inspiration for this movement.”
For Allison, Travis and the team at Seward Co-op, the Know Our Grower program represents their commitment to helping customers make mindful, conscientious choices about their food and to showing growers that their hard work to bring healthy, sustainable fare to our tables is recognized and greatly appreciated by the whole community.
Seward Co-op’s Know Our Grower invites customers to meet Jack Hedin of Featherstone Fruits and Vegetables on Saturdays, August 14 and 21, and Martin and Atina Diffley of Gardens of Eagan on Sundays, August 29 and September 5. Samples of the farms' products will be served and Seward member-owners will receive a discount on all of the featured farms’ produce during the week(s) of their visit. For exact times and information about scheduled events in September and October, please visit www.seward.coop/know-our-grower-0.
Tracey Paska is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty who also writes about the complex, confusing and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle.