By Tom Vogel, Valley Natural Foods Marketing Manager

I first became aware of Midwest Food Connection (MFC) when I began working at Seward Co-op, in Minneapolis, nearly 12 years ago. At the time, I was relatively new to cooperatives, but I was drawn to them because of their emphasis on local food sourcing and commitment to education. Seward had been a sponsor of Midwest Food Connection for several years, so I soon became familiar with MFC’s work on those same topics.

I had the opportunity to visit a few elementary schools in the South Minneapolis area to observe MFC instructors in action. Plenty of organizations are proponents of local sourcing and education, but I’d never seen those values exemplified like I did when watching a class taught by Midwest Food Connection. The lessons were engaging and hands-on. They addressed potentially lofty topics—the environment, dietary choices, food justice—in a way that was accessible to the students, some as young as kindergarten age. By the end of a session, most students had a much better understanding of where their food came from and how they could make informed choices about their own eating.

One class that stands out in my mind was taught by MFC Executive Director Uli Koester. It was an elementary school class in the Seward neighborhood. Uli brought in a bowl of uncooked wild rice. He let the kids pick up the rice and feel it in their hands. He showed them how to crack it open. He explained about the history of wild rice in Ojibwe culture and described the unique method of harvesting it. As the parent of a 6-year-old daughter at the time, I remember being impressed by how engrossed the kids were in the experience. I heard several of them say they were going to tell their parents about it when they got home; that they were going to ask them to make wild rice for dinner.

They were excited about food.

Years later, when I went to work in Burnsville, Minn., at Valley Natural Foods Co-op (another MFC sponsor), I was invited to represent the co-op on Midwest Food Connection’s Board of Directors. The decision was an easy one.

Every day working in a natural foods co-op, we strive to educate our customers about the significance of local agriculture, sustainable farming practices and transparency in sourcing. In an exceedingly competitive grocery industry, amid a sea of competitors selling conventional products, this can be a challenge. The work that Midwest Food Connection does at the elementary school level—laying the foundations rooted in the value of food—will one day make our jobs much easier.

A few months ago, I attended a Midwest Food Connection donor appreciation event in Minneapolis. During the event, MFC instructors presented segments of a few of the lessons they teach in schools around the Twin Cities metro every day. We learned about the excessive sugar content in common soft drinks, got to handle exotic fruits and vegetables, and tasted snacks made from seaweed. The reactions from the adults in the room were the same as those of the elementary school kids I saw years ago:

They were excited about food.