Prairie Roots Community Fund (PRCF) is the non-profit branch of Fargo's Prairie Roots Food Co-op. Jen Walla is one of four AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTAs) sponsored by the Community Fund to decrease hunger and build healthy futures in our community. Jen has been involved in the local food movement for over a decade. She completed a Sustainable Food Production Program at Minnesota State-Fergus Falls in 2013, and has been a volunteer with Growing Together Community Gardens since 2015. She is enthusiastic about foraging locally for food and medicinal plants, and sharing her love of nature with others. Much of her excitement about local food and community stems from her dad's fruit tree expertise, her mom's dedication to teaching, and her grandparents' beautiful gardens. Her partner and son garden and forage with her, continuing the family tradition of growing delicious food. Jen loves acting as a community liaison, cultivating mutually beneficial connections around the community. In this article, she talks about the multifaceted impacts of food insecurity and ways PRCF is working to improve access to fresh, nutritious, high quality food for everyone in our community.
Nutrition has a tremendous impact on individuals and their communities. It affects kids’ and adults’ ability to focus and learn, to have energy for play or effective work, to care for their families and to engage with the community. Lack of it can impact or even cause diseases. Many healthy foods come with a higher price tag and require a bigger time investment to cook than fast food or highly processed foods, so some of the hardest working people have a hard time making good nutrition a consistent part of their lives.
These challenges hit close to home for some of Prairie Roots Food Co-op’s closest neighbors. In Fargo’s Census Tract 6, which includes both the Co-op and the Golden Ridge neighborhood around the Madison Elementary School, adults work more hours per capita than in any other neighborhood in Fargo (U.S. Census, 2010). The same neighborhood has the lowest average income in Fargo (U.S. Census, 2010).
When a neighborhood faces this type of economic paradox, people struggle for both time and money to provide for their families’ and their own health and nutrition.
A business focused on being a good neighbor
When Prairie Roots Food Co-op planned its store location, the old Mathison’s building on the corner of NP Avenue and University Drive became available. It is located on the edge of downtown and at the edge of neighborhoods earning the lowest average income in Fargo. While some would look at that location as a challenge, Prairie Roots saw an opportunity.
Prairie Roots Food Co-op, a community-owned grocery store, has a mission to provide healthy, natural food for everyone in the community. The store opened its doors in July 2017. In September that year, just two months after opening its doors, the 501c3 nonprofit Prairie Roots Community Fund (PRCF) was incorporated to focus on extending food access and community support to our neighbors in Fargo-Moorhead who don’t always have the security of knowing where their next meal is coming from, much less whether it will be a healthy one.
In summer of 2018, three AmeriCorps VISTAs (Volunteers In Service To America) began working with PRCF. AmeriCorps is the domestic version of Peace Corps, to build the capacity of organizations working to eradicate poverty within the United States. Volunteers receive a small living stipend, basic health care coverage, professional development opportunities, and an education award at the end of their service. The federal government shares these expenses with the VISTA-sponsoring organization. More information is at the end of this article for nonprofits who would like to apply for an AmeriCorps VISTA.
Since PRCF was a new organization that had not yet built its capacity to share these expenses, Essentia Health partnered with PRCF to share the cost of the VISTAs. North Dakota Senator Tim Mathern, then President of both the Co-op’s board and the Community Fund’s board, and veteran VISTA himself, applied for Prairie Roots to sponsor the VISTA program. Senator Mathern volunteers as supervisor for the VISTA team. For the three years that Prairie Roots is approved to sponsor them, the VISTAs are responsible for setting up and running the PRCF. Prairie Roots’ Board has prioritized PRCF’s outreach projects for these first three years, which are described below.
Prairie Roots asked its VISTA team to develop sustainable programming for Prairie Roots Community Fund in three areas:
1) Develop SNAP and WIC programs to extend the amount of healthy food our neighbors’ hard-earned dollars could purchase.
Double SNAP voucher at Prairie Roots Food Co-op. The Community Fund has worked to develop this program so SNAP customers can double their buying power with a $10 matching voucher each week.
PRCF’s Development VISTA, Barb Villella, felt passionately about jumping into this area of PRCF’s work. As a single parent who has experienced food insecurity herself, Barb feels a personal connection to her role enhancing nutrition assistance programs at Prairie Roots Food Co-op. She has helped shape and share the Co-op’s Double SNAP program. Customers paying with their SNAP cards receive a matching $10 each week, doubling their purchase power up to $40 each month for fresh, frozen or canned fruits and vegetables. After PRCF received a partnering grant from Essentia Health to initiate this program, it has truly become an example of neighbors caring for neighbors, as our Double SNAP program is sustained by customers choosing the option to round up their grocery bill to the next dollar (or larger amount of their choice) at the cash register.
Along with SNAP, WIC is another important source of nutrition for many families. We are working to bring WIC to Prairie Roots Food Co-op. In cities, guidelines required for the WIC program favor bigger stores than Prairie Roots, but the Co-op and Community Fund are working together to meet the goal of making WIC options available to Co-op customers. Increasing the amount of whole grain, natural and organic options for WIC is an important task we take seriously.
In addition to the work developing nutrition outreach at the Co-op with Double SNAP and WIC, the Community Fund has been connecting with local businesses and writing grants to continue to make sure Prairie Roots’ neighbors have strong purchasing power, and that Prairie Roots’ other programs can continue and grow. With Barb’s seemingly effortless ability to relate to people, her work as a PRCF VISTA has helped to connect struggling community members not only to Prairie Roots’ resources, but to services from organizations we’ve partnered with too - a big benefit of boots-on-the-ground community action!
2) Develop education classes around nutrition and wellness to help community members use food as a healthy tool in caring for themselves and their families.
Healthy for Life class participants learn about testing for blood sugar and cholesterol, and how food choices can help manage those health concerns. Please reach out if you are interested in joining Prairie Roots’ free upcoming classes!
An added value to the Double SNAP program is our community education program. Naquela Pack is finishing her Masters of Public Administration while serving as Prairie Roots’ Education VISTA. Building community and bridging service gaps have been constant themes in Naquela’s career path. At Prairie Roots, she has been putting that experience into practice as she has cultivated relationships with local nutritionists, registered nurses, wellness programs and colleges, identifying ways we can bridge gaps, reach more people who need the excellent services already provided in our community, and address needs that are not yet met. PRCF chose the evidence-based Healthy for Life® program for Prairie Roots’ education curriculum due to the positive outcomes from the 12-week piloted intervention implemented in 3 major cities (Houston, Philadelphia, and Chicago). Almost half of the participants in the pilot programs reported an increase in their confidence to cook healthy meals at home, improved shopping and cooking skills, and improved individual health behaviors, with potential to impact family behaviors.
Participants who attended the first module of the Healthy for Life program in the Golden Ridge neighborhood engaged the instructors with thoughtful questions as they discussed the role of food in health, specifically for managing blood sugar in diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol.
The next three modules will be facilitated at the Madison Community Room once a week. All classes will be held from 6:30 pm - 7:40 pm. The class schedule is as follows:
Feb. 21: Chopped Salad Competition!
Feb. 29: Tasty, Affordable Meals for BUSY Families
Mar. 7: Sauté Simmer and Steam
Mar. 14: No Lesson
Mar. 21: Healthy Ingredient Swap
Mar. 28: Kitchen Discovery with Kids
Apr. 4: Snack Smarter
Apr. 11: Pick a Protein
Apr. 18: Smart Fearless Shopper
Apr. 25: Pantry Makeover
May 2: Label Smarts May 9: Weekly Meal Plan Made Easy
Gardening in Your Neighborhood
May 16: Seasonal Fruits and Veggies
May 23: All the Flavors of the Garden
The lessons are targeted to the head of household who is primarily making the meals. They combine different adult learning styles and a fun environment to freshen up on healthy cooking and meal planning, and are free for anyone. Participants will receive discount coupons for recipe ingredients discussed in class. Child activities and supervision are provided during the classes. If you would like to teach, help, or participate, please reach out to us! Contact information is at the end of this article.
3) Develop community gardening programs to empower neighbors to produce and eat the freshest food around, save money, and build connections with each other.
Gardeners sharing the joy of a great harvest at Growing Together Community Gardens. Prairie Roots Community Fund worked with Growing Together to develop a model for starting a new community garden.
As Prairie Roots’ Gardening VISTA, Jen Walla is excited to share the connecting power of community gardens with Prairie Roots’ neighbors in Golden Ridge and with the rest of the Fargo-Moorhead community. Fargo Parks is preparing a land use agreement for a 100’ x 100’ garden plot just west of Madison Elementary School, to be planted in spring 2019. Jen has been working with the school to find ways that the garden’s close proximity can open learning partnerships.
Growing Together Community Gardens’ Jack Wood has been mentoring the Golden Ridge gardening project, as PRCF plans to implement their communal gardening model. Garden participants meet for 2-3 hours one time each week to do the work of planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting. Gardeners divide the harvest each week, often taking home 20 to 40 lbs. of food for each family. There is no charge to be part of the community garden, but participants are asked to work at least 8 hours to earn a half share or 16 hours for a full share - a number that consistently attending participants will reach by the time the harvest really gets rolling. This style of gardening allows each person a chance to teach and learn from each other while working cooperatively in the garden. The opportunity to grow new and traditional foods and have great conversations as we try each other’s favorite recipes at community potlucks is a wonderful way to learn more about our neighbors. Growing one’s own food, learning new ways to cook, and developing a sense of community are empowering actions that we hope will build healthy futures for many people.
Now that land is approved, Prairie Roots is reaching out to area businesses to seek donations of garden supplies, such as hose, spades, rakes, hoes, trowels, stakes, buckets, and garden carts. We also will need to acquire a pop-up shed to keep these tools safe. If you would like to donate any of these items, share seeds or plant starts, or volunteer or participate at the garden, please reach out to us. Contact information is at the bottom of this article.
Behind the scenes
Since the VISTA program is a short-term boost for an organization, a big part of a VISTA’s job is to find ways to keep the organization going strong into the future. Thanks to the generosity of Prairie Roots customers and donors, the Double SNAP program looks like it will have a long and successful life. Many organizations and individuals have stepped up to teach or facilitate classes, and the Healthy for Life program is in a format that makes many of the lessons accessible and teachable even without nutrition or teaching expertise. The communal gardening model of Growing Together empowers community members to take on leadership roles and garden participants to make it their own.
In January 2019, a fourth VISTA joined the Prairie Roots team. In addition to studying for his Law School Admission Test, Andrew Bowling is working behind the scenes, streamlining procedure and policy guidelines so the other three VISTAs can do their jobs most efficiently. He also joins Barb in writing grants to help sustain the work being done.
By 2021, Prairie Roots Food Co-op hopes to be able to hire a Community Fund employee to carry on the work of the VISTAs. Jen, Naquela, Barb and Andrew are working to lay a strong foundation for that person to step into.
Festival of Nations at Golden Ridge Lutheran Church. Prairie Roots Community Fund VISTAs brought produce and potluck goodies to share and talked with community members about Double SNAP, gardening, and topics of interest for health and wellness classes.
Building connections in a diverse neighborhood is a challenge for a new organization. The neighborhood has high turnover, so a lot of neighbors don’t know each other well. Many people don’t have computers, or time to read emails from senders they don’t know. Golden Ridge is a diverse neighborhood, and some New Americans know very little English.
To get the word out in the Golden Ridge neighborhood about Prairie Roots’ free classes, community garden, and Double SNAP opportunities, the VISTAs have connected with organizations that are already active in the community. For instance, in recent years, Golden Ridge Lutheran Church has chosen to use their building as a community center. They host community dinners on the first Wednesday of each month, put up basketball hoops for neighbors to use, organize an annual Festival of Nations, and host other community gatherings at their building. Prairie Roots VISTAs have had a chance to meet and visit with families and individuals at many of these neighborhood gatherings. Prairie Roots’ first two education classes were held at the church last fall.
Prairie Roots Community Fund is building relationships with a number of other community organizations. Legacy Children’s Foundation Director Mary Jean Dehne and Madison Elementary School’s Principal Bobby Olson have supported us with advice, encouragement and giving their support to the Park District’s decision to provide garden space. Fargo Community Trust Police Officer Michael Bloom has invited us to connect with community members at various neighborhood and school events. Cultural Diversity Resources has connected us with translators to help overcome language barriers. Family Wellness teaches nutrition and wellness at Madison Elementary School, and is working with us to facilitate adult classes that complement what the children are learning.
The Prairie Roots VISTAs have been walking door-to-door to introduce themselves and to invite neighbors to classes, community dinners, and garden information events. These repeated face-to-face interactions are building familiarity and trust with the neighbors we keep seeing. Our hope is that, as neighbors see that we are invested in building up this community, we will reach those who will most benefit from Double SNAP, Healthy for Life classes, and participating in the garden.
Investing in the whole community
While PRCF’s efforts are currently focused in the Golden Ridge neighborhood, we believe that building connections benefits everyone.