As a grassroots community organizer in Southwest Minnesota, I have spent the last 5 years working to unite community members around common goals to improve the lives of people living in our region. What may appear at first glance to be a preservation organization working to save and repurpose a large historic school building in the tiny rural town of Jasper, MN, the mission is actually much greater than that.
Our initial focus was convincing the community that these buildings would be more valuable when reused than demolished, and once achieved, our focus shifted to the community needs that could be met through the future new life of these buildings, starting NOW. One thing we did was look at data from a survey of the county residents reporting about their health and quality of life. Several metrics jumped out at us: Our community has a higher than average percentage of elderly and low income residents- 10% of the populations under 18 and 14% of those over 65 live below the poverty line. Residents report that fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive, and often rely on convenience and non-perishable foods.
Another issue the community faces is the high rate of obesity. In Pipestone County 72% of adults are overweight, 31% obese, and only 32 percent report eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Additionally, the distance that Jasper residents need to drive in order to access a wide variety of fresh, healthy food is 20 minutes or more, as there is no full service grocery store, only a vital convenience store that provides some of the most important necessities. We believe we can positively impact the health of the entire community through our organization’s work by leveraging both our physical assets and our strong history of community volunteerism in order to improve these metrics and promote community health.
Renovation work and grant cycles take time before a building is ready for occupancy, but we can impact the community faster simply by using the land around the building right now in various ways. In the past, we have done so by hosting events like a run/walk, many community meals, and work days for volunteers to clean and maintain the building and grounds, but we know that there is SO much more we can do.
In 2020, we received donations of fresh garden vegetables from supporters (Reker Farms of Garretson, and Adam Dennis), and set up a makeshift produce stand, and offered the vegetables for donations on an honor system. Residents could donate as they could afford, and those in need could simply help themselves. It was a success!
After thinking about how to repeat this in the future, we consulted with Project Food Forest, a nonprofit based in Luverne, MN, whose mission is to Empower people to feed themselves through agroforestry, edible landscape and education. Their Food Forest installation in Luverne has had a great reception and is maturing really nicely.
After learning more about them, we realized that establishing an edible landscape feature to the school grounds would not only serve to reduce the community’s status as a food desert, and increase access to fresh food, but it would also serve as a placemaking project that will positively impact residents’ enjoyment and quality of life by providing a beautiful outdoor setting for activities and events, as well as providing more native plants that will positively impact the pollinator insects and birds in the area.
We believe in a world where we are responsible stewards of our built resources, and our community’s wealth and assets. Our mission is to mobilize our community to reuse its cultural assets in order to solve local environmental, social and economic problems. The 2.11 acre school property has untapped potential and plenty of unused land to support a food forest and our planned community garden beds in 2021. We would like to install a small starter food forest on the east lawn of the school and build several raised beds for community garden plots. We have some volunteers who have already signed up to help build and install these, as well as several pledges for financial support for materials. But we need YOUR help too!
We were lucky enough to receive a mini-grant from A Healthier Southwest program, funded through the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP)
as part of the State of Minnesota’s Health Care Reform Initiative, in order to pay for the design of the Food Forest. Partners of A Healthier Southwest are working with communities, schools, healthcare and worksites to promote policy, system and environmental changes with a focus to improve nutrition, increase physical activity and decrease tobacco use and exposure.
Using this mini-grant of $575, we hired Project Food Forest to design this installation, and provide us with the recommendations for native and edible plants that are best for our region, as well as supporting us with some Forestry Corps volunteers to help us install and learn how to care for our new plot. Now, we ask you, our partners, to help us purchase the necessary plants right NOW so we can order them for installation this May. Can you sponsor the cost of a tree or shrub to help us get started? Donate Here and put Food Forest in the comments!
We host approximately 6 fundraisers per (normal) year to raise funding for our projects, and consistently seek grant funding for specific projects as well. In 5 years, we have raised over $100,000 from our individual supporters, and $148,000 in grants, no small feat for a town of only 630 residents. We hope to host some Covid-safe outdoor events this summer.
We have a list of around a dozen volunteers who have already committed to help with installation and maintenance of garden beds and a food forest. Having a public place that offers residents the opportunity to collaboratively grow and harvest food will improve physical health as well as social and emotional health, and also serve to foster deeper community connections and relationships. The very foundation of our entire project is simple; leveraging community power to accomplish incremental transformation. This can only succeed when people are engaged and supported in taking ownership of a project, and this is also the greatest factor in successfully sustaining the project in the long term. “A rising tide raises all boats,” is a motto we pursue in everything we do in Jasper. We know that improving the community’s health is not only a necessity for our community, but also for the ultimate success of our organization. We will partner with local foundations in order to help us raise the necessary funding to implement these very important programs in our community. I hope you will consider donating to make this a reality, or Volunteer to help us install it this spring as well!
Check out the design for our Food Forest, on the left lower side would be the east wall of the gymnasium, and the top left corner is the edge of the band room.