Minnesota cooking classes sprout an interest in local food and produce

LITTLE FALLS, Minn. (AP) — Sprout Growers and Makers Marketplace wants to create a legion of locavores.

And no, that’s not a type of dinosaur.

A locavore is a person whose diet primarily consists of locally grown, raised or produced food. But to eat local, you first must learn how to cook local.

At least, that’s the idea behind Sprout’s locally focused cooking classes, which put interested folks of all skill levels in the Sprout kitchen with a central Minnesota chef to learn how to utilize fresh, local food.

“The cooking classes are a great way of breeding a vibrant food culture in our region, because they’re really hands on. It’s fun, it’s entertainment, it’s social,” said Natalie Keane, facility utilization director at Sprout, which celebrated its two-year anniversary April 1.

The St. Cloud Times reports that the 5013c nonprofit, which also includes a food hub for aggregating and delivering locally grown produce to large-scale consumers like hospitals and schools as well as individuals, is focused on food culture.

And, as in any other culture the world over, food culture hinges upon storytelling.

“We feel storytelling is a critical element … because it is exactly at that moment when we tell our stories that we begin to know who the members of our communities are,” said Arlene Jones, executive director of Sprout.

But she’s not talking about weaving fantastical tales; these stories won’t involve handsome royalty and pumpkin carriages. They’re more likely to include the effects of heavy rainfall and, well, actual pumpkins.

“When you’re working with locally grown food, you’re going to see the whole product, like carrots with big green tops. You’re seeing the farmer, and connecting with them, and they might tell you about their growing season and how it was affected by the rain this year,” said Keane.

“That’s why I’m so interested in locally grown food, because it’s so personal. You’re in a relationship with the grower as a consumer, as an eater.”

So Sprout is putting class attendees in the room with experts of food-focused storytelling: chefs.

“From the chef’s perspective, it’s an art,” said Jones. “For these classes, we’re bringing in executive chefs from premiere restaurants and giving them a chance to share their expertise and their art and talk about local foods.”

Think sushi with Matt Annand of Prairie Bay Grill in Baxter, soups with Jason Eslinger of Iron Range Eatery in Crosby, and a CSA-member-exclusive seasonal cooking class with Tomas Zimmerman, owner of Little Fall’s own A.T. The Black & White.

While the classes give cooking newbies and experts alike the chance to learn at the elbow of local chefs, they also elevate the mission at Sprout’s roots: to build and strengthen a community of food growers, makers and consumers right in their own back yard.

“The impetus for this has always been supporting small family farms, because I am a small family farm,” said Jones, who grows on an 80-acre farm in Brainerd. “My platform has always been supporting anything local. We want those dollars to stay in the communities where the wealth was created; we want to create wealth that sticks.”

One of the ways to do that, she said, is to “teach people to eat, drink, shop and live locally.”

But in some ways, Jones and the Sprout team are also teaching folks how to grow where they’re planted.

“We have a 100-mile radius for our target area of impact. (One of the reasons) we chose Little Falls (for Sprout’s location) is because it gets us into the demographic and geographic region of St. Cloud,” Jones explained. “We know that in the climate we live in, particularly in St. Cloud and Little Falls, it’s taking a long time to bridge the gap of some of the cultures and communities.”

“We know that if we can allow ourselves to listen to other people’s stories, and understand who they are, we can bridge some of those cultural gaps, some of those pockets of unknowing and misunderstanding, and we know we can do that through food.”

Keane said that, at its core, Sprout and the cooking classes it hosts are about hands-on, farm-to-foodie educational experiences — and eating experiences, naturally.

“It’s a chance for people to come in and not only learn something, but eat and enjoy and share a meal together,” she said. “We’re building that food culture where people are engaging with their food. … central Minnesota has such a strong agricultural community, and we really want to lift that up and make that connection to all of the eaters in the community.”

Connection. It’s a buzzword at Sprout, but for good reason: it’s the food hub and marketplace’s raison d’etre and perhaps the thing Jones most wants to grow at Sprout. After all, everyone eats. Why not bring folks together over our great, universal hunger?

“We all bring with us our heritages and our traditions, and much of that we bring through our connections to food,” she said.

So, as Keane said, “take a chance and come to a class.” You might find you leave with some great food — and some great connections, too.

By Kerry Minor

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