The Rutabaga Project: Healthy Local Food in Virginia MN

Feb 28, 2018

There are probably few places on the planet where the name "rutabaga" really resonates, but according to Rutabaga Project volunteer Marlise Riffel, Minnesota's Iron Range is one of them. "Rutabaga is such a Range thing...You know, pasties with rutabaga are 'real' pasties, and I know it has roots here on the Range...There are so many stories...how people liked them mixed with mashed potatoes, and how they used to grow them in their gardens. There are even other names for rutabagas." And yes, many people insist the proper pronunciation is "rutabagie."

Marlise and former AEOA planning director Lorrie Janatopoulos are credited with naming the Rutabaga Project. "We were sitting in the AEOA (Arrowhead Economic Development Agency) conference room and I suggested the name 'What's-a-Rutabaga?' And Lorrie said 'Nah, nah, nah, let's call it the Rutabaga Project.' She told me later that she thought I was kind of crazy but it's really, really helped us."

The Rutabaga Project launched in January 2016 to bring nutritious local food to people in the City of Virginia and the surrounding area. The idea was born in 2013. As Marlise explains, "There was some funding available, and the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability [IRPS] had for a long time had a local foods project focused on getting people to grow and eat more local food. AEOA was focused on the needs of low income people and food security, which in Virginia Minnesota was a pretty notable problem. So we got our heads together and decided that we maybe could each bend our missions a little - that IRPS would focus on food insecurity and the needs of low income folks, and AEOA could focus on local healthy food instead of just healthy food."

The partners were turned down for grant funding twice, but succeeded in their request the third time. In two short years the project has racked up a list of accomplishments. Among them: supporting the Virginia Market Square Farmers' Market, including allowing the use of EBT cards and the "Power of Produce" club for kids, Growing Together Community Gardens, free rides for groceries, a partnership with convenience stores to offer healthier food called Virginia Digs Vegetables, and a new plan for EBT-friendly meal kits in partnership with Natural Harvest Food Co-op.

The group is also sponsoring another project, the Northland Food Network, which meets this Friday from noon-4 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Mountain Iron.  Marlise describes this as "a group of people from all over the northland who are concerned about action on local foods. It includes producers, growers, farm-to-school administrators, farmers' market managers, and public health officials..." It is connected to the MN Food Charter, a program funded by BC/BS of MN, Minnesota Departments of Agriculture and Health, University of MN Extension, and the General Mills Foundation. Registration is requested by Feb. 28 2018. The meeting is free and includes an "awesome free lunch" for registrants at 11 a.m.

Marlise Riffel is sober when asked about the future of the Rutabaga Project. The group met earlier this week. "We can see we have enough funding to get through September of this year. And then we don't know what's going to happen...we are exploring several options but we don't have answers."

You can learn more about the Rutabaga Project on their Facebook page. There is also more information in the interview with Marlise Riffel below: