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Lake Elmo Market cultivates local fresh food movement
Alongside chips, candy and soda, Lake Elmo Market now offers acorn squash, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.
The gas station and convenience store recently expanded its offerings, making it one of the first branches of the local fresh food movement in a city with practically no grocery store options.
Manager Ramiz Saadeh partnered with Our Community Food Projects in collaboration with Washington County’s Living Healthy initiative to make Lake Elmo Market, located at 11025 Tenth St. N., one of the only places to buy groceries within city limits.
“The customers also sort of made me make the decision to add fresh produce, because they were looking for potatoes, and they were looking for onions,” Saadeh said. The store is next to the Cimarron manufacture-home community.
The only other option is Hagberg’s Country Market to the north on Highway 5 in the Old Village neighborhood, which offers some fresh food and a grocery section.
Still, those living in the southern portion of the city have had to travel around three miles or farther to buy basic meal ingredients.
Ann DeLaVergne spearheaded community gardens in Lake Elmo and around Washington County and has helped plant a similar seed at corner stores, starting with Saadeh’s business.
“This is almost a food desert,” DeLaVergne said. “It means local grocery stores are gone and you have to travel miles. There’s nothing in this area that we know of, other than this.”
Limited grocery and transportation options are issues for residents of Cimarron Park and in other parts of the county, according to Patricia Galligher, the Washington County Department of Public Health and Environment’s senior community health specialist. Those both can be barriers to nutritious eating, a main goal of Statewide Health Improvement Program assistance.
The county is applying for a grant that would offer seed money to sow what Lake Elmo Market does elsewhere.
“One of the things that we want to do within this grant is expand the corner store concept to at least one other store or at least other small stores in the county who might not otherwise have a lot of fruits and vegetables,” she said. “It’s been shown through many studies that an increase in fruits and vegetables is really helpful to decrease chronic disease and decrease obesity.”
Galligher said that program coordinators are looking for feedback and community partners to keep it going.
While setting up baskets and reorganizing green peppers around the new section on Wednesday, DeLaVergne said Lake Elmo Market will serve as a model to integrate healthier options at shops that are usually full of sweets, salty snacks and soda pop.
A progressively growing effort, DeLaVergne is also working to complete the fresh-food loop by having students run a garden to grow fruit and vegetables, which can be sold at the storefront across the street.
“This is a great opportunity for that to become a sustainable system,” she said.
Boosting health and business
Convenience is key. More nearby fresh food options means more opportunities for Lake Elmo residents to make healthful choices, she said, something the Stillwater woman pushes for as a volunteer and director of the consulting business Our Community Food Projects.
“It improves diet, it improves health, it improves community,” DeLaVergne said.
Another hope of hers is to boost local business, but also local jobs, offering chances for people to work the soil, she said.
Saadeh said they hope to grab fruits and veggies from local farmers in the area next year.
“So, we know it’s locally grown and locally sold,” he said.
Saadeh won’t make much profit on just the vegetables and fruit, because, according to DeLaVergne, they’re bought and sold at reasonable prices. The expectation is that it will increase foot traffic for the store, which has been open for just over a year.
“I feel great about being the pilot,” Saadeh said. “Gas stations are always known for convenience. I want my customers to buy more produce here so we can keep it for people who don’t have the option to go to other superstores.”