Archive | Fall 2009

neminneapoliscornerstore

Healthy Corner Stores

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By Emily Freeman

You probably don’t think of your neighborhood corner store as the place to go for fresh fruits and vegetables. But as of August, it might be worth a second look.

As a result of the new improved nutrition guidelines for Minnesota’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program (see Notables page 4 for information on the WIC changes), all stores that accept the WIC vouchers will be required to adhere to a new minimum stocking requirement for fresh produce. For stores located in counties with a population of 250,000 or more—currently Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, and Ramsey Counties—this means carrying at least seven varieties of produce, two of which must be bananas and carrots (stores in other counties need five varieties). While the new WIC stocking requirements aren’t specifically targeted at corner stores, they’re the ones for whom implementation means the biggest change from the status quo. And as corner stores often serve as the only source of groceries in the so-called “food deserts” of low-income neighborhoods, their new inventory stands to have the most impact.

In the past, corner stores in Minnesota had no easy way to tap into a wholesale produce distribution system. Owners most often had to buy their produce inventory from retail sources like supermarkets or buying clubs, then mark up the price to account for their labor. This created a price-barrier for many shoppers who couldn’t afford the twice-marked-up products. Consequently, the inventory didn’t move, got worse-looking by the day, and often had to be thrown out. “The system wasn’t working well for shoppers or for many corner stores,” says JoAnne Berkenkamp of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

Berkenkamp is the head of IATP’s Local Foods Program, and worked closely with the Minnesota Department of Health to create the healthy corner store initiative, helping corner stores to easily access affordable, fresh produce without changing their current ordering or distribution system. IATP partnered with H. Brooks & Co., a local wholesale produce distributor willing to sell small quantities to the so-called “broadline distributors” who provide corner stores with their existing inventory of refrigerated and shelf-stable products. This innovative collaboration allows corner stores to tap into a global produce market, as well as a large local inventory during the growing season. The diversity of options means that corner stores can easily tailor their inventory to reflect the needs of their clientele’s particular food interests and traditions. “It’s really about connecting the dots,” says Berkenkamp. “And about leveraging the existing distribution system to give stores access to products that they haven’t had before.”

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges for the corner stores will be getting out the word about their new fresh inventory, not just in terms of its availability, but why it matters. Too often a lack of access to healthy food coexists with a lack of knowledge about the same, and in many families it’s the lack of basic information about nutrition that leads to generations of obesity, disease, and general malnutrition. To address these concerns, the MN Department of Health and IATP have developed extensive marketing materials to orient customers to the fruits and vegetables now available in their neighborhoods. Additional marketing and publicity efforts are in the works at Catalyst (bethecatalyst.org), a nonprofit youth empowerment and advocacy group based in South Minneapolis.

Another challenge will be keeping the inventory fresh and appealing-looking, so there may be somewhat of a learning curve for clerks to learn how to maintain the different items. But every potential challenge goes hand-in-hand with a strategy for solution. It just takes time. Programs of this type have been implemented in urban areas across the country, and in many cases have proven quite successful. Organizations like the Healthy Corner Store Network (healthycornerstores.org) provide a wealth of resources and information for communities looking to start this kind of program, or to strengthen a program that’s just getting on its feet.

But don’t just leave it up to the nonprofits and policy-makers. If you like the idea of fresh fruits and vegetables in your neighborhood, there’s an easy way to make your voice heard: buy something. Pick up an onion, some bananas, or a couple of oranges. Assist the store owners in making what might be a slow and challenging transition. Help them move their inventory and let them know how much you appreciate the availability of fresh produce within walking distance.

Can WIC Save Neighborhoods?

My neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis is full of corner stores both old and new. The older ones are mostly residences now, some with a business or studio on the ground floor where dry goods and produce were once sold. Originally, these stores catered to the immigrant communities who lived in the area—mostly Eastern European—and sold staples to the wives whose husbands toiled long hours on the railroad or at the mill. The corner stores were hubs of neighborhood activity, providing an invaluable service to families, in some cases extending credit when times were particularly hard.

Flash forward half a century and corner stores have become an entirely different beast. Rather than being perceived as a valuable and positive element of the community, they’re viewed by many as price-gouging purveyors of junk food, a source of litter on neighborhood lawns, and magnets for illegal activities.

Is it possible that fresh fruits and vegetables could turn this around? Could a WIC-directed mandate of increased produce inventory wind up having unintentionally positive benefits for the whole neighborhood? While the healthy corner stores program originated at the public assistance level, WIC recipients aren’t the only ones who’ll benefit from the expanded produce options. The availability of fresh food items within walking distance is a boon to anyone who’s ever made the eleventh hour discovery that the only onion in the house has gone soft, or anyone who needed a piece of fruit to turn Sunday morning pancakes into something special, or simply had a late-night hankering for a banana.

It’s perhaps overly optimistic, but nonetheless fun, to imagine that the new improved WIC guidelines will be the first step in returning corner stores to the kind of solid and dependable institutions that they once were, raising their estimation in the eyes of the neighborhood, creating a space where people interact and talk and perform those basic functions which, when performed often enough, create community.

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squash

COOKING FRESH: WINTER SQUASH

winter squash

By Teresa Marrone

When summer wanes and the trees begin to turn, look for winter squash at the market; they’re at their peak in fall, but many are available from summer through late winter. Unlike soft-skinned summer squash such as zucchini, winter squash have hard rinds and can be stored at room temperature for weeks—even months, in some cases. The rinds are hard and inedible (except in the case of the delicata squash; see below); if the rind must be removed before cooking, as when sautéeing, care must be taken so the knife doesn’t slip off the hard rind and cause an injury. To cut a squash in half, use a heavy chef’s knife and rock it carefully to work through the squash; for really tough squash, a heavy-backed cleaver can be used, tapping it carefully with a hammer.

Winter squash is rich in vitamins A and C; the deeper the color, the more nutritious it is. Acorn and butternut squash are probably the most familiar winter squash, but there are many other types that offer a variety of flavors and textures.

  • Spaghetti squash is rapidly becoming as common as acorn and butternut squash. Unlike other winter squash, its flesh isn’t solid; rather, it separates into spaghetti-like strands after it’s cooked, giving the squash its alternate moniker, “vegetable spaghetti.” This oval-shaped squash is pale yellow, with a smooth rind, and generally weighs two to five pounds. To prepare, cut it in half crosswise, scoop out the seeds, and place it cut-side down in a baking dish with a little water. Bake or microwave until just tender (timing depends on size), then scrape out the strands, fluffing them to separate. Spaghetti squash is bland on its own, but takes well to sauces and aggressive seasoning.
  • Delicata’s name says a lot: this is a small heirloom squash that fell out of favor with the vegetable trade because its skin is so thin that it is more difficult to transport and store than other winter squash. It’s making a huge comeback, with good reason; its flesh is tender and sweet, with a flavor that is reminiscent of roasted corn crossed with sweet potatoes, and the skin is so thin that it can be eaten, a rarity among winter squash. Delicata are oblong, generally five to eight inches long and a little over half as wide; they have cream-colored to yellowish rinds with moderately deep, green-striped grooves. Cut them in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds, then bake or steam the squash; or, try the recipe for Grilled Delicata Squash Rings.
  • Sweet dumpling is another very small squash, typically weighing less than a half-pound. It looks like a small, ivory-colored pumpkin with green grooves; the stem end is deeply depressed, forming a natural cup. The flesh is deep orange, with a creamy texture and a sweet taste. Sweet dumplings are a good size for individual servings. Cut the top off and scoop out the seeds, then bake or microwave the whole squash. For a nice presentation, the squash can be stuffed either before or after baking. 
  • Hubbard squash range in size from large to ginormous—they can top out at 50 pounds. Hubbard is seldom seen in its whole state; typically, the squash is cut and sold in large chunks. At the market, look for plastic-wrapped chunks of yellow-fleshed squash with a thick, warty rind (blue-gray or green, depending on variety). After peeling, Hubbard squash can be sliced or cubed, then roasted or sautéed. Steamed or boiled Hubbard squash is often puréed and used for soup or pie filling.
  • Banana squash is another behemoth in the squash world. This oblong squash grows to three feet in length, so it is usually cut into smaller pieces, which are individually wrapped for sale. The rind is tan or cream-colored, much like a butternut squash; the flesh is a sunny golden color, with a fine texture. Cook it as described for Hubbard squash (above).
  • Buttercup has sweet, rich, yellowish-orange flesh that is dense and somewhat dry. They are round in cross-section; the sides may be rounded or squat-looking (somewhat squared off). Rinds are dark green with thin, pale stripes, and may have numerous small pale splotches. The blossom end often—but not always—has a ring-edged, pale-green bulge that is sometimes compared to an acorn cap. Buttercups generally weigh two to four pounds. They work well for steaming or baking, methods that keep the flesh from drying out.
    • Autumn cup is a buttercup hybrid that is slightly more squat but has the same striped green rind; its flesh is particularly sweet. Ambercup is another buttercup relative, but it has an orange rind and looks like a small, squat pumpkin with a dull, somewhat rough surface; it keeps particularly well.
    • Finally, turban squash is yet another buttercup relative. This larger squash has a large, swollen cap end that gives the squash a turban-like appearance; it is multi-colored, typically orange and green with white stripes. The flesh is golden-yellow and nutty. Because of its unusual shape and bright colors, it is often used as an ornamental squash in fall displays.
  • Kabocha is a squat, dark-green squash that resembles the buttercup, but lacks the ringed cap on the bottom. The rind is rough-textured with shallow, pale-green grooves, and the squash generally weighs two to three pounds. The flesh is deep yellowish to orange; when steamed or baked, it is moist and somewhat loose in texture, with a nutty, almost woodsy taste that has been compared to chestnuts, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins. It is a common ingredient in vegetable tempura.
  • Carnival squash resemble acorn squash in shape, with a flattened top, a pointed bottom and deep, rounded grooves on the sides; they’re typically five to seven inches across, and about as high. The color is variable; often they have pale-yellow rinds with orange grooves and scattered dark-green speckles, while other times they look like an acorn squash that got dipped partway in yellow or orange paint and then spattered with white. The yellow flesh is sweet and moist. Like acorn squash, carnival squash should be cut in half and seeded, then baked, steamed, or microwaved. Try baking one cut-side up, with a knob of butter and some brown sugar or maple syrup in the cavity; dust it lightly with coarse salt and a bit of pepper before serving.

Toasted Squash Seeds

Grilled Delicata Squash Rings

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coverETCfall09

Fall 2009 Table of Contents

Winter 2008NOTABLE EDIBLES

THE GIVING GARDEN
By Kelli Billstein

CITY BACKYARD FARMING
By Kelli Billstein

CRANES, CRANBERRIES, AND SURVIVAL
By Charli Mills

HERITAGE TURKEYS
By Jerry McClelland

EDIBLE NATION
Love Soup
By Anna Thomas

COOKING FRESH
Winter Squash
By Teresa Marrone

HEALTHY CORNER STORES
By Emily Freeman

CANNING DAY
Bridging Generations and Communities
By Emily Freeman

MY THREE SISTERS
By Barb Parisien

OFF THE SHELF
Salsa
By Teresa Marrone

FOOD, FROGS, AND FECES
By Brian DeVore

ROADSIDE DIARIES
Grand Marais
By Carol Banks

METRO FARMERS’ MARKETS

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