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SUSTAINABILITY COLUMN: Initiative encourages healthy food access

"I can't wait to eat MY beans," Nico says. Submitted Photo

Nico’s plant stands one foot tall and is producing green beans about six inches long. Though he is not the biggest fan of green vegetables, he is eager to taste the fruits of this particular plant. That is because he has taken care of this plant from the very beginning, according to his mom, Erika Adams. Nico received bean seeds through the One Vegetable, One Community initiative, which he planted as an activity in his kindergarten classroom.

One Vegetable One Community (OVOC) is coordinating efforts to highlight beans on restaurant menus, in edible urban landscaping, in residential gardens, and in the minds of children by providing seed packets and information on growing, cooking, and preservation. The county-wide initiative seeks to encourage healthy food access and community-building by empowering gardeners of all levels to plant, grow, and cook the featured vegetable. Increasing the resiliency and inclusivity of the regional food system will result from the sharing of stories, recipes, growing tips, and enthusiasm throughout the season.

“Beans were chosen,” according to Deb Dilley, a Snap-Ed Educator and University of Minnesota Extension representative, “because they are an easy veggie to grow, and many people like to eat beans. There are also many ways to prepare and preserve beans.”

Nico’s kindergarten teacher at Paul Bunyan Elementary, Kristi Hernández, had her students plant bean seeds in recycled milk cartons, which they brought home at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. Although Nico and his classmates planted bush beans, other varieties of bush and pole beans were distributed county-wide. More than 3,000 seed packets containing a garden marker, planting instructions, and recipes were distributed to public libraries, resource centers, and other community locations.

Though the planting season is behind us, there are opportunities to taste bean dishes amidst harvest season. Look for bean-centric dishes at the farmers’ market, and in local restaurants as the summer comes to an end. Eventually, input from the community will be sought for the decision of next year’s vegetable spotlight.

Nico transplanted his bean seedling, with a little help from his mom, to his family’s backyard garden in early June. Since then, he’s continued to monitor its progress.

Beltrami County’s OVOC is following the lead of Duluth, which in 2011 became one of the first communities to organize the annual initiative. The question at the heart of the work has remained; “How can we increase access to fresh, healthy food for everyone in our community?” Bemidji joined the movement on a limited basis in 2016 offering rainbow carrots. This year’s local initiative is unique in its multi-community collaboration, as representatives from Bemidji, Blackduck, and Kelliher coordinated to organize the county-wide effort. Sponsors include the Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, Beltrami County Master Gardeners, University of Minnesota Extension, Statewide Health Improvement Partnership, First National Bank Bemidji, Bemidji Area Farmers Market, Sanford and Harmony Co-op.

The city of Park Rapids and Clearwater County have also chosen to highlight beans this year, whereas Duluth is growing onions, Wadena is highlighting Kale, and peppers will abound in Crookston. Each community is uniquely exploring its own response to the goal of making fresh, healthy food more accessible, one vegetable at a time. It seems to be working in Beltrami County.

“’I can’t wait to eat MY beans!’, Nico exclaimed upon spotting the first beans,” according to Adams. “Having them grow their own vegetable plants is a great way to help kids learn where food comes from and to be more enthusiastic about actually eating their veggies.”

Deb Dilley can be reached via e-mail at dille007@umn.edu for more information.

Diana Kuklinski and Jordan Lutz are members of the Bemidji Sustainability Committee.