Fresh local food for all

Don’t all people deserve the chance to eat fresh local food?

In my latest Eat Local America post, I talk about several initiatives underway in the Twin Cities area that seek to make locally grown, fresh foods available and affordable for more people.  A couple of weeks back, I volunteered for one of these programs – Second Harvest Heartland’s food collection effort at the Minneapolis Farmers Market.

Second Harvest Heartland, a hunger relief organization, has three separate gleaning operations through its Giving Green initiative to gather fresh foods that may otherwise go to waste and distribute them to food shelves throughout Minnesota and parts of western Wisconsin.  Their Food Rescue program collects foods from 215 retail grocers that may otherwise go to waste; each week during the growing season, they collect thousands of pounds of food at the Minneapolis Farmers Market; and during late summer and fall, they collect apples from area orchards through its Apple Gleaning program, which has gathered over 170 tons of fresh apples for area food shelves in the past three years of operation.

I had been involved in the Giving Green initiative at Minneapolis Farmers Market the year that it launched back in 2009 and wanted to help out again, since I think it’s such a cool program.

Each Sunday during the growing season, Second Harvest collects fresh produce donations at the farmers market, brings it all back to their massive warehouse, then turns around and delivers this food to area food shelves all across Minnesota and western Wisconsin on Monday and Tuesday.

On a sunny August Sunday, I hauled box after box after box of fresh cucumbers, corn, greens and other local foods donated by market vendors over to the staging area where the Second Harvest Heartland truck awaited.  Some vendors donated one box of produce; others donated several.

Market shoppers can also donate food or money for this program.  When money is collected at the market, the volunteers turn around and spend the cash on food purchases from the market vendors to add to the stockpile. It was pretty fun for me to go around to the market stalls and purchase even more food for donation.

By the end of that Sunday I volunteered, the donations had added up to over 4,000 pounds of fresh food, which equated to over 3,000 meals for hungry families.

If you wish to get involved in this yourself, visit the Fellowship of the Fresh site and see how you can help.   Many volunteers are required each Sunday to make this collection effort happen.

If you’re not able to volunteer, you can still help out by publicizing this program via social media.  The Mosaic Company has committed to donating dollars each time that someone likes Second Harvest Heartland on Facebook, comments on any post on the Second Harvest Facebook page, or tweets about the program on Twitter using the hashtag #getfreshforthehungry.  It’s that easy.

Market madness

As I start the descent down the hill into the traffic-laden streets surrounding the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market this bright Saturday morning, my head starts throbbing. Why, oh why didn’t I drag myself out of bed earlier so I could beat the crowds? It’s 10:00 am, peak market time.

I remind myself why I choose to shop at this market — there’s a fantastic selection of fresh produce, and I seem to learn something new from the vendors each time I shop here.

Parking chaos greets me as I turn into the main lot in the underpass. Cars parked willy-nilly, double inner rows down the middle of the standard rows, cars driving over the sidewalks…

Luckily a lady signals to me that she’s leaving, and I undoubtedly annoy the car waiting behind me by backing up to within inches of it so that the lady can pull out of her spot and give it to me.

Sorry, suckas, I’ve got this spot, better luck next time.

I’m only planning to go through one aisle, since I feel that’s all I can mentally handle; it’s sensory overload for me being at this enormous market.

As I stroll over to the first row of sheds, the market is in full swing. Rainbow Chinese restaurant chef Tammy Wong is talking about buying local chicken.

I run into Sandy Hill, the Communications Director for the market, who tells me that the EBT program started on July 1, and over 100 vendors have signed on to allow low-income shoppers to use their government food credits to buy fresh produce. A cool development!

Sandy hands me the brochure and I see that EBT cards are now being accepted at Midtown Farmers Market and Northeast Farmers Market in addition to the Lyndale market.

Today, I’m on a specific mission to procure a series of ingredients for some mad canning experiments I’m conducting at home. I need to pick up corn, tomatoes, green and red bell peppers, cabbage, onions, garlic and cilantro, and I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to find everything on my list.

It’s easy to see which vendors are local; they either display the Minnesota Grown logo or have their farm location listed on the stand’s sign.

There are a plethora of Asian vendors at the market, most of whom are Hmong, I think. I buy some tomatoes and chile peppers from the Chiu Xio stand at the end of the aisle, yellow onions from Blia Kue, and cabbage from Yaoson Gardens, all Minnesota vendors.

I stop and buy green bell peppers at the Dave Nelson Grower stand (Corcoran, MN).

When I ask when red bell peppers will be available, he says he thinks it’ll be another couple of weeks. (Sigh. I love red bell peppers.)

At the Rich Valley Farms stand (Inver Grove Heights, MN), a plethora of hot peppers awaits future incorporation into a spicy salsa. These peppers look better than the ones I just bought, so I pick up some here too.

This stand’s display is cool because all of the different types of peppers are labeled. Of course, I don’t think to take a photo of this at the time, but after the market, I laid the assorted peppers out on my cutting board at home to show you the varieties:

From left to right they are:
Jalapeno, Hungarian Wax (or is this one a banana pepper, I’m not quite sure), Cherry Bomb, Purple, Serrano, Purple peppers, Garden salsa, Hungarian (plus another at top), Poblano, Anaheim, Super Hungarian.

For more info about the heat levels of these peppers, check out the Cook’s Thesaurus visual reference.

The vendor tells me:
-The red one is a cherry bomb pepper, similar to jalapeno, but more sweet.
-Garden salsa peppers look similar to Anaheim but they’re more round, while the Anaheim is flattened.
-The Hungarian and Super Hungarian are the same flavor, it’s just that the Super is larger.
-The tiny purple peppers are the hottest ones of the bunch.

Filled with pepper facts, I move on down the aisle.

Oh, man, there are those bitter balls again. Unless a fantastic Liberian stew recipe lands in my lap, I’m gonna steer clear of those. Quick, avoid eye contact….

I stop by the Nao Tou Yang stand (Rosemount, MN) because they always seem to have the best garlic (see last year’s photo here); both fresh and cured heads of garlic are available. I ask how long cured garlic lasts, and the vendor tells me that it can last for several months.

It makes me wonder about the garlic with the moldy bits that I often see at supermarkets; how old must they be?

Still, no cilantro. Why doesn’t anyone have cilantro?? I head over to aisle 2 because Dehn’s Garden is sure to have some.

It’s easy to get distracted by all of the visual splendor in the abundant displays of fruits and vegetables all around.

Local watermelons lay sprawled on a tarp; of course I have to check out the prices.

Plums! For one day only! I veer off to the Plum Crazy Orchard (Buffalo, MN) stand.

The local plum scene is brief, as I learned last year. The young guy working the Plum Crazy orchard stand tells me that these plums will only be around maybe another day or two; it’s unlikely they’ll even have them next week.

I don’t know much about selecting plums, so this visual was helpful. Not to mention the free samples. I hadn’t planned on buying plums, but hey, carpe diem!


As I’m walking up to the Dehn’s Garden herb and vegetable stand (Andover, MN), I overhear the vendor share a tip with a little old lady about storing tender fresh herbs like basil, cilantro and mint – store them in the door of your refrigerator, since it’s the warmest spot in your fridge. If these herbs get too cold, they’ll shrivel and turn black.

When it’s my turn, I grab a bunch of cilantro, then I ask, why doesn’t anyone have cilantro today? He replies that cilantro tends to bolt (go to seed) in hot weather like we’ve been experiencing, so it’s difficult to properly grow right now. Mystery solved.

I leave the sweet corn for last, since I didn’t want to have to lug it around. So I hit the Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm stand (Waverly, MN) on my way back to the car.

There lay fat cobs of corn, awaiting their date night with Hope Creamery butter tonight.

Arms about to fall off from carrying the heavy vegetables, I head back to my car feeling satisfied. I’m glad I came here today!

***

More often than not, I learn a thing or two when I visit a farmer’s market. You can see which local vegetables and fruits are at their peak, and hear directly from growers what local growing conditions are like, plus get answers to questions you have.

You don’t get this at a typical supermarket.

Second Harvest Heartland Giving Green update

I was at the Minneapolis Farmers Market this past Sunday because I volunteered once again for Second Harvest Heartland‘s Giving Green food collection effort at the market.

We usually have about a dozen volunteers assisting during the 2nd shift, when the bulk of the food collection from the vendors takes place. Alas, this past Sunday, there were just five of us, doing our best to gather all of the food. Yes, we can!

For a couple of hours, our lives revolved around these boxes.

The Second Harvest truck dropped off empty boxes around noon, and we offered them to the growers, stand by stand, in the main market plus the Annex. At this point in the season, I think the boxes are pretty recognizable to the growers; they know the drill.

After a bit, we started to wander the aisles and gather the boxes as they were packed, going back and forth between the stands and the Second Harvest staging areas.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…I like to think that I’m in shape, but I work at a desk job and, man, it was tiring work for me. But completely worthwhile at the same time – I was getting lean through Giving Green.

Some of the random thoughts that crossed my mind as I chugged around like the little train that could:

  • The Minneapolis Farmers Market’s Lyndale location is huge.
  • Minnesota farmers grow an amazing variety of produce in abundant quantities.
  • Some fruits and vegetables are friggin’ HEAVY! Especially this time of year. Apples, pickling cucumbers, squash…each time there was a box of these, I groaned a little inside. Lettuces, on the other hand, were a piece of cake.
  • I have the utmost respect for these growers, watching them interact with customers, carry their heavy produce around (even the little elderly women), and break down their displays and tents. Being a vendor at the Farmers Market is no cakewalk; it’s a long day for them, including travel to and from the market, not to mention the efforts spent growing the food itself. The growers are a hard-working bunch of folks.

Each time I volunteer for this food collection, I feel moved witnessing such generosity from this market’s growers and shoppers.

By the end of the afternoon, we were all spent, but feeling good about what we had accomplished. We took a break and chomped on some local Haralson apples from Fireside Orchards as a pick-me-up.

We found out today that Sunday’s haul yielded 6,600 pounds of fresh food. That brings this season’s total to over 72,000 pounds of local produce collected!

Second Harvest is still in need of volunteers to help out at the farmers market on October 11, 18 and November 1. If you’re interested, contact Tim Wareham at volunteer@2harvest.org

I will be leading the charge during the second shift on 10/18 and would love to see any of you readers out there or better yet, pounding the pavement with me.

If apple picking is more your thing, Second Harvest is also coordinating apple gleaning operations at various orchards on the outskirts of the Twin Cities during the month of October. They gleaned at their first orchard in Rush City on August 29th and collected 10,000 pounds of apples in a single day. Amazing.

A visual feast at the Mpls Farmers Market

Dude, I’m wiped out from the weekend once again. (I thought weekends were the time to rest and rejuvenate. It turns out that they can be even busier than the workweek.)

My brain is not fully functioning yet for the workweek, so I’m just going to present a series of food photos of the gorgeous produce I saw at the Minneapolis Farmers Market yesterday.

Our local food season is coming to an end soon, so feast your eyes on these, knowing that they will soon become a memory for this year.

Heirloom tomatoes galore…
…including beautiful mini-varieties

Ginormous heads of broccoli and several kinds of cauliflower, including white, cheddar, purple and broccoli Romanesco

Lots of Asian greens including bok choy and yu choy / choy sum

Beautiful squashes such as Carnival squash

And Turban squash

And local apples, of course – Cortland, Honeycrisp, and Haralson among others.

Finally, bins of bitter balls and chili peppers (the Scandanavian Minnesotan in me thinks, who in their right mind can eat this much of these foods???)

If you’re a cook, then there’s no way you can visit a market like this and not go home with a ton of stuff. I picked up Minnesota-grown sweet corn, red peppers, tomatillos, Haralson apples, wild rice, bitter balls and some local bacon from Bar 5.

Excuse me now while I go plug in my brain…

Seduced by corn and plums at the Nicollet Mall Market

Since my kids’ daycare was closed last week, I was on vacation the entire week. On Thursday, we ventured to downtown Minneapolis to meet my husband for lunch, and I stopped by briefly at the Nicollet Mall farmers market run by the Minneapolis Farmers Market.


Yet another farmers market vibe here – all business, literally, as people quickly stopped by during their lunch breaks to pick up fresh produce and flowers.

I was all business too, since my kids presence ensured that I only had about 25% brain capacity available to conduct transactions. It was not the time for idle chit chat; I had to make my purchases quickly and be done.

My husband ran interference with the kids while I quickly strolled through a couple of blocks of stands (the stands seemed to alternate on different sides of the street every block). I was looking for the SweeTango apples featured in that morning’s Strib, but was also on the hunt for sweet corn and plums.

There were lots of heirloom tomatoes and peppers. Oh no, are those really winter squash over there? It seems too soon, but the grower said that they usually start to appear right about now.


The Nistler Farms signs caught my eye, so I just had to buy my corn from them.

My eyes were as big as the ears. Six cobs didn’t seem like enough, so I bought a dozen; then the farmer threw in a couple extra. GULP! I had to figure out a game plan for this corn, STAT.


I also bought some local plums from Havlicek’s Veseli Vrsek (Happy Hill) Orchard, where the grower told me that the plum harvest was just about over for the year; he’ll probably only have plums at the market for one more week.


I thought local plums became available just a couple of weeks ago; now I know the plum season is brief here in Minnesota. So get down to the markets this weekend if you want to score some.

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