by Bjorn Bergman,
Promotions and Educational Coordinator
On Monday, April 2nd 2012, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and a number of individuals from USDA Rural Development and the Wisconsin Farm Services Agency visited Viroqua to learn about the developing local food economy in our region.
Wisconsin Farm Service Agency Executive Director Brad Pfaff, VFC GM Jan Rasikas, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and State Director USDA Rural Development Stan Gruszynski visit at the Viroqua Food Co-op.
“I am here in this part of Wisconsin because of the growing interest in local and regionally grown food and keeping our food dollars in the community...which is a national craze,” Merrigan said during a press conference. “People are really excited about knowing where their food comes from and learning more about who produced it.”
She pointed to a recent National Grocers Association study that found 83% of consumers said the presence of local food in a grocery store was a major factor in where they decided to shop. “From the small food co-op to the corner store to the Wal-Mart’s of the world, everybody is getting that this is the biggest food trend we’ve seen in decades. And there is money to be made and jobs to be grown and we should be all in.”
The first stop during her visit was Vernon Economic Development Association’s (VEDA) Food Enterprise Center located at 1201 N. Main Street in Viroqua. Sue Noble, the executive director of VEDA led the tour, which included short presentations by three of their current tenants at the Center: The Fifth Season Cooperative, Just Local Foods and LuSa Organics. Merrigan and company also toured the new commercial kitchen under construction there, which will be available to local producers and businesses for production of value added products. The kitchen is scheduled for completion sometime in May.
Merrigan indicated that food hubs like the Food Enterprise Center are a growing trend in the U.S. and “...an example for the rest of the country for what we can do as a society to grow jobs.”
Standing in front of the Fifth Season Cooler in the Food Enterprise Center. From left to right are Susan Noble, Executive Director of the Vernon Economic Development Association, Diane Chapata, Operations Manager of Fifth Season Cooperative and USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.
The USDA recently released a report about food hubs and is planning to release a food hub inventory on their ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ website at www.usda.gov. The site allows people nationwide to access and learn about different types of hubs that exist across the country.
After the tour of the Food Enterprise Center, Merrigan led a White House Business Council Meeting with more than 20 local civic leaders and business owners, including Viroqua Food Co-op General Manager Jan Rasikas. At the meeting, Merrigan asked the group for their experience on what’s working and what isn’t when it comes to federal policy and programs that foster job creation in the United States. Merrigan and her staff will take what they learned at the meeting back to President Barack Obama and his cabinet. Over the past year the White House has held over 500 Business Council Meetings nationwide.
The crew at Just Local Foods pose with USDA officials. From left to right: WI FSA Exec Director Brad Pfaff, Mark Linder, Joshua Staum, Rufus Hauke, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, VEDA Exec Dir Sue Noble, Jennifer Rengert, State Director USDA RD Stan Gruszynski.
After the round table at the Food Enterprise Center, Deputy Secretary Merrigan, Brad Pfaff Executive Director of Wisconsin Farm Service Agency, and Stan Gruszynski State Director USDA Rural Development visited and toured the Viroqua Food Co-op with VFC’s General Manager Jan Rasikas.
“I wanted to show Deputy Sec. Merrigan the impact that our mission driven Food Cooperative makes when it comes to strengthening our economy,” said Rasikas. “We focus on organic and local food, and make an effort to connect VFC shoppers with area farmers. Food co-ops across the nation have supported local farmers for decades and have really pushed the local food movement to the forefront. Nowhere is that more evident than in Viroqua!”
Rachel and Pete Wolf of LuSa Organics in their new space in the Food Enterprise Center.
VFC was awarded the USDA Rural Development Loan Guarantee that helped to secure local area funding when we built our current storefront. The 2005 move to Main Street created 40 new jobs at the Co-op and last year put over $1.2 million of wages and benefits into our community. “National programs supporting cooperative business couldn’t be more important than in today’s economy,” said Rasikas. “Co-ops focus on community ownership, service, and meeting owner’s needs. We operate on a set of principles, as all co-ops do, that mark co-ops as stable employers, with low failure rates and a concern for their community. It’s economic democracy in action.”
No article on the local food system in the Driftless would be complete without acknowledging the essential ground-breaking work done by the Valley Stewardship Network. VSN gave birth to the Food and Farm Initiative, and completed a Community Food Assessment in 2010. This 18 month long study showed how local food dollars were spent and where local farm dollars were going. They formed the Gleaning Project, which documented the availability of surplus food and the need of a market for seconds. FFI developed the relationships that started the local Farm to School movement, and assisted with the Buy Local Buy Wisconsin grant proposal that funded the formation of the Fifth Season Cooperative. Our local food system has a firm foundation on which to grow because of the work of VSN and the Food and Farm Initiative.
The visit from the USDA Deputy Secretary marked an exceptional day for the region and the Viroqua Food Co-op to showcase the economic impact that the local food movement has had on our community.