Bringing local food back home

PHOTO: frankieleon, Flickr CC

PHOTO: frankieleon, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

We often hear the phrase, “you are what you eat.” It could also be said that “you are where you eat.”

Here in Northern Minnesota, people subsisted off the land for millennia. But then came Wonder Bread, TV dinners, hot dogs and Cheetos: tasty, calorific foods that can be named but not necessarily identified.

Cheap to buy, these foods — coupled with corporate farming practices — muscled most traditional local foods off the menu for two generations.

One of the biggest culinary trends in Northern Minnesota over the past ten years has been the increase in popularity of local foods. This often overlaps with a desire for healthier or more organic eats, but the movement is fundamentally related to the desire to eat fresher food of a known origin, often because it tastes better.

The local food trend has been heavily advanced by demand from Millennials and other younger consumers dissatisfied with a life of food preservatives.

In fact, if you patrol the aisles of the Natural Harvest Food Co-op in Virginia or the Hibbing Farmers Market, you’ll see plenty of optimistic young people. You’ll see more young people there than at one of the countless planning sessions for the future of the Iron Range. Why not?

Local foods are grown or produced by local farmers. Almost every penny spent stays in the community. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon. My great-grandparents consumed far more local food in their diets than I do now, and people here have survived entirely on local plants and game since the last glacier left more than 10,000 years ago.

But the economics of how we make and sell food have changed where our next meal comes from. Food is much cheaper for us to buy from the big stores, but the price of doing business this way manifests in transportation costs and pollution. The locus of resulting economic power is outside our control.

Another new local food co-op is launching in Itasca County. The Free Range Food Co-op is based in Grand Rapids and organizers are currently building a membership base sufficient to launch a new store.

“We came together with the common interest of increasing access to local food – specifically sustainably grown produce and humanely raised meats,” said Sarah Verke, one of the organizers of the Free Range Food Co-op. “We knew from the beginning that we were meeting to learn what it would take to start a food co-op, and decide how to move forward. We all had previous experience with either being members or shopping at food co-ops, and we really feel that there is a need for one in this area, and that the community will support the effort.”

The new Grand Rapids co-op would join the newly expanded Natural Harvest in Virginia, Harmony Food Co-op in Bemidji and Whole Foods in Duluth as the region’s only co-ops. In addition, Farmer’s Markets in Grand Rapids and Hibbing allow direct sale of local, seasonal foods to consumers.

The demand is there. Free Range already has 143 members as of last week, well on their way to their July 31 goal of 300 members. If you’re interested in finding out more, see

“The memberships now are critical to moving forward with market and feasibility studies, finding a store location and remodeling to fit the store needs,” said Verke. “Memberships also show community support and will put us in a stronger position when we apply for loans and grants.”

I’ve never been much for health food. But I love the idea of a healthy food system, one that connects our community and strengthens our local economy. You can be a part of this whether your tastes are for bacon or kale.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 5, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Thanks for this story.

    One oversite, though: if you are talking about food co-ops in northern Minnesota, you missed one: Cook County Whole Foods Co-op in Grand Marais, which has been around since 1976.

    Another thing to mention, too: northern Minnesota has other co-ops that aren’t natural food co-ops, and some of them have very long and interesting histories. For example, Mesaba Co-op Park in Hibbing (which I’m sure Aaron is familiar with), and the Finland Co-op General Store in Finland, MN, which is the oldest continually running co-op store in Minnesota, and which celebrated its centennial a couple years ago.

  2. Great story Aaron! Also the crow wing food coop in Brainerd! They have really changed nd expanded in the last 10 years. Free range coop has lots of resources close at hand to rely on….they were recently on Kaxe/KBXE telling their story

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