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Local kitchen 'incubator' could become reality

Lisa Weiskopf, produce manager at Harmony Foods Cooperative in Bemidji, mists the produce section with water Tuesday morning. Harmony Foods received a student research grant through the University of Minnesota to conduct a feasibility study on the need for a commercial kitchen to process locally grown foods in Bemidji. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

A group of people from northern Minnesota wants foods grown locally to be as accessible as foods commonly found in larger grocery stores.

In order to make this happen, a plan is in the works to build a commercial kitchen in Bemidji, one that is Food and Drug Administration-approved and could be used by individuals to mass-produce locally grown food products, such as spaghetti sauce, jelly, pickles and salsa.

The project has been spearheaded by the Headwaters Food Sovereignty Council, which serves the counties of Becker, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Hubbard, Itasca, Mahnomen, Pennington, Polk and Red Lake, as well as Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth reservations.

Harmony Natural Foods Cooperative, a member-owned retail food cooperative in Bemidji, has been at the helm of the HFSC and the project to develop a commercial kitchen since the HFSC was formed in 2008.

In 2008, Harmony Foods was approached by the Indigenous Environment Network, an organization based in Bemidji, seeking ways to create a local food system. Harmony Foods was interested.

"There is this perception that healthy foods are only accessible to those with money," said Lisa Weiskopf, produce manager at Harmony Foods. "We looked at that as being the foundation on which we could create a food system to ensure access."

The kitchen incubator in Bemidji is proposed to be located in Harmony Foods' newly expanded downtown facility.

Kitchen incubator

In October of last year, Harmony Foods applied for and received a student research grant through the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to do a feasibility study on building a commercial kitchen incubator.

A commercial kitchen that can be leased to individuals is also referred to as a kitchen incubator because it implies that it incubates, or assists, individuals or small businesses.

The CURA program matches student researchers from universities or colleges with community action programs, such as the kitchen idea. Bemidji State University student Pamela Austad is the student researcher assigned to Harmony Foods' feasibility study.

Ryan Zemek, a development specialist with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, has provided Harmony Foods with some economics-related information for the feasibility study. But Zemek is also starting a larger initiative involving local foods. He is in the beginning stages of studying the regional and local economy.

The foodshed

Zemek said there are environmental and economic benefits to eating foods grown locally. He said research suggests local foods have more taste and money spent locally stay in the community.

"One of the challenges is how do you build a system where you can start getting local foods into not just the farmers market," Zemek said. "I don't know if there will be a tool to get local vegetables into the hospitals because of distribution."

Zemek said he wants to take an inventory of growers and distributors in the region, but this is dependent upon funding.

"I want to look at our food assets - who is growing what and what do we have the potential to grow?" he said. "It's March, and we still have snow on ground, which is a potential challenge. How do you build a model?"

Weiskopf and others asked faculty members from BSU to help with the business and geography aspects of the commercial kitchen project. Geography instructor Mark Lawrence and several students mapped the foodshed surrounding the headwaters of the Mississippi region. A foodshed is the area between where a food is produced and where a food is consumed.

"As we were discussing the foodshed, we realized there are no food processing facilities in this region, which is a big barrier," Weiskopf said. "Most of those facilities fled to centralized urban areas. We're kind of in this food dessert."

After looking at the foodshed map, Weiskopf said the HFSC located potential partners that could be involved in the commercial kitchen project. Some of the partners that have shown interest are the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Education's farm-to-school program, the White Earth Recreation Project and the Wild Hare Bistro and Café in Bemidji, among others.

"People at the farmers market can sell jellies, jams and pickles, but they cannot sell them to other institutions like schools because they have not been FDA-certified," Weiskopf said.

One kitchen incubator in Minneapolis that has inspired the HFSC is the Kindred Kitchen. A variety of people such as caterers, wedding cake bakers and bread makers use the kitchen to prepare their products there. Those products are then sold to schools and businesses.

"I know there are mushroom growers in Leonard and several bakers from the area who could use something like this," Weiskopf said.

Weiskopf said often farmers and small food producers cannot sell their foods to businesses or schools because they do not have the facilities to preserve the food to achieve the quality of FDA standards.

Weiskopf said the HFSC is working with area foundations and organizations to find funding for the project.

"If we provide the space, we can hook people up with organizations that help do business plans, help with marketing and food distribution," Weiskopf said. "We're really looking at this as a community project."

According to Weiskopf, both farmers markets in Bemidji -

Bemidji Area Farmers Market and Bemidji's Natural Choice Farmers Market - are excited about the commercial kitchen idea. She said Bemidji's Natural Choice Farmers Market is even considering forming a growers' association.

"If the local growers were to come up with their own label and learn how to extend the life of their product through processing, that would create revenue," Weiskopf said. "They could get their products to a larger regional market."

The HFSC has been in discussions with the Headwaters Regional Development Council. Weiskopf said she has also been in contact with a few local school districts.

"Schools want to access local foods," Weiskopf said. "But there is a lack of capacity. They can't be ordering from 20 different farmers."

Weiskopf said a commercial kitchen would extend the life of locally grown foods so that they could be accessed by schools year-round. She said the HFSC is looking into forming a network of schools to lower the costs.

Timing is good

There has never been a better time to start planning for a kitchen incubator, according to Weiskopf.

"I think strategically with the partners we've been working on, I feel like this is the time," she said.

The HFSC plans to put food access surveys on its website to see if people would be interested in using a commercial kitchen. The food accessibility feasibility study is expected to be completed by next fall.

The HFSC is hoping to attain funding for the second phase of the plan through the CURA program, Weiskopf said.

While Zemek does not know if a locally grown food distribution center could be developed in Bemidji in the near future, he said he has seen a shift in more people becoming interested in where their food comes from.

"Fifty years ago I think a lot more of the meat, vegetables, milk and cheese were coming from local sources," Zemek said. "As we built up larger industrial food system, there was less need for these growers."

Today, especially with gas prices around $3.50 a gallon, Zemek said it is making more sense to people to depend on local facilities.

"Even a 15 percent shift in more local goods would cause some industries to start up again," he said. "Then some of that money could circulate through local economy."