In this age of global food production, it’s easy to get nearly any food, during any season, in any part of this country. Strawberries in February, kumquats in March and bananas every day are the norm now — but this wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t so long ago that an orange was a luxury and sugar was cherished.

This modern expansion of our food supply certainly has its benefits. Many of us wouldn’t know what to do without our daily coffee or chocolate. But with these benefits come responsibilities, to keep our local farmers, farm communities and the environment thriving.

When Mississippi Market Co-op started doing business, this was in the forefront of the minds of a small group of people who wanted good, clean food from local sources. And now, 31 years later, this St. Paul cooperative is 10,000 member-owners strong and part of a thriving local foods community in the Midwest.

Of course, we’re not the only ones. Plenty of people have opened their eyes to the benefits of eating locally these days and they’ve all had that moment of realization — eating locally doesn’t have to be restrictive and it can strengthen both the environment and the communities that surround us. It’s nearly impossible to ignore the benefits.

When farmers intend to sell their produce to local markets like ours, they are able to grow varieties that are known for their juiciness, flavor and nutrition rather than for their ability to ship well or ripen while packed in a box. Along with local foods’ shorter transportation times (the average for non-local foods is 7-14 days) comes a reduced dependence on fossil fuels for transporting across those “food miles.” Plus, the economic benefits of supporting local farms ripple throughout a community, enriching all those involved. If local farms are small to medium in size and using organic or sustainable methods, they hit the ideal trifecta that Mississippi Market is looking for in a product.

With a long list of 16 product preferences guiding our selection of products, we give plenty of thought to the items on the shelves of our stores. While every item is not locally produced, we stock over 200 brands (or farms) year-round. Yes, year-round. In Minnesota.

Many people assume that eating locally means virtually starving in the winter in such a cold climate. But everyday staple foods like oatmeal, cornmeal, beans, wild rice, milk, cheese, bread, eggs and meat from local farmers are all available every day of the year at Mississippi Market. While the fresh produce selection does dwindle after the snowfall, our savvy local farmers have begun using hoop houses, root cellars and hydroponics to extend the season far beyond past limits. We’re still enjoying carrots from Minnesota in January!

So how do we find all this amazing food that is grown locally? It’s easier than you might think. Many of our farmers have been supplying the co-op for decades. New farmers and producers now seek us out, because they have heard that we have a strong market for local foods and will work with our suppliers to diversify their crops and find their niche in the market. Our support of organizations like Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings Program and Minnesota Food Association’s Immigrant Farmer Training Program helps ensure that the number of small farmers in Minnesota continues to grow. By offering tours and lectures to agriculture students and farmers’ unions, we make connections with new farmers and encourage them to consider working with a cooperative to market their products.

New and seasoned locavores in our community enjoy our Local Product Guide, listing each local supplier and the number of miles they are from our stores, along with stickers on our shelves denoting the locally sourced products and local purchases totals on their receipts. Each week producers visit our stores to sample local products and meet their fans. Every year these efforts culminate during Eat Local America month (www.eatlocalamerica.coop) when we challenge our community to eat as locally as possible during August. It is a month of celebrating our local farmers, the abundance of food that they provide and the strength of small, local businesses.

While it is difficult to measure the exact impact that supporting these farmers and producers has on our local economy, we do know that 45 percent of our wholesale purchases were from local producers (MN, WI, IA, ND, SD) or Minnesota-owned businesses last year. This translates into millions of our shoppers’ dollars being circulated back into our local farms, who are then more likely to spend their dollars locally.

It is inspiring to see how the efforts of small organizations, farmers, cooperatives and passionate individuals have ballooned into a local foods movement spreading across the country. From community gardens and farmers’ markets to farm-to-school programs and local foods legislation, we are delighted to continue our work and see the results manifest in our communities.

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