It’s 9 am in a squat yellow box of a building on the outskirts of New Ulm, where employees of the Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories are shuffling into the break room to hear a presentation on—well, they don’t exactly know yet. On one side of the room are a few vending machines stocked with Cheetos, Cheez-Its, Funyuns, and several popular beverages on the ever-growing list of “things that ought to be banned.” On the other side of the room is a small cork “Wellness Board” with a few flyers for an exercise class and upcoming 5K run tacked in place with pushpins.
In attendance is a representative sample of New Ulm’s overall population—some younger, some older, some fat, some skinny, some in between, almost all white, and all willing to listen, sort of, to someone talk to them for 45 minutes on the glories of community supported agriculture, or CSAs—known, as one aspiring comedian in the bunch observes, as the “weird vegetable of the week club.”
Tracie Vranich is the presenter. Energetic and earnest, she runs the Putting Green EcoCenter, an odd combination of minigolf course and environmental learning center (“caring for the planet one putt at a time”). She’s been hired by the Heart of New Ulm project to help educate citizens on the benefits of buying and eating locally grown produce. It has not escaped her that this is a tough room.
She tells a story about evil green tomatoes that are picked in Mexico, shipped 1,700 miles to the local supermarket, and then gassed with a chemical called ethylene to redden them up. She talks at length about understanding the ecosystem that our food comes from and how the food circle of life—herbicides, fertilizers, chemicals, soil and water quality, pollution, etc.—all ends up in your mouth. She pulls out a display board showing the U.S. government’s dreaded new “pie plate” nutritional guidelines and discusses the wisdom of “eating a rainbow,” by which she means foods of different colors, particularly the green, yellow, and red ones.
“Has anyone here ever eaten kale?” she asks, hopefully. One guy raises his hand.
“Did you like it?”
He lifts his palm a few inches and wiggles it. “Meh.”
At the end of the presentation, the participants are given a list of farmers in the area who have CSA openings, plus a free plastic cutting board for slicing up all those fresh, locally grown vegetables they now know they’re supposed to eat. Sitting next to me is Rachel Hoffman, a mother of two kids, ages 6 and 3. I ask her if she has been persuaded to join a CSA.
“I’d say she certainly gave us a lot to think about,” she chirps, letting me know with her eyes that she really means “No, but I don’t want to say anything bad.”
“What would it take for you to feed kale to your family?” I ask.
She smiles and says, “Well, I’d have to like it first.”
Virtually every decent-sized business in New Ulm has received a presentation like this, or similar ones on the value of exercise, the importance of setting achievable goals, managing diabetes, or any number of other topics related to a healthier lifestyle. It’s just one aspect of the multipronged Heart of New Ulm project.
Persuading people to give up pizza and potato chips in favor of kale and kohlrabi will always be a hard sell, of course, but in New Ulm the task is made especially difficult by the prevailing culture of the town itself. How do you advocate for a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and whole grains in a town where a significant chunk of the local economy is based on foods specifically designed to shut down aortas and prevent people from making the U.S. Olympic team?
Take butter, for instance. “Butter is a sensitive topic in New Ulm, because butter means jobs,” says dietician Rebecca Fliszar. Indeed, the Associated Milk Producers Inc. butter plant employs about 185 people. “So we can’t really tell people to stop using butter altogether. Instead, we encourage them to use less butter and inform them about healthier substitutes, like olive oil. It’s baby steps.”
New Ulm calls itself “The City of Charm and Tradition,” and 66 percent of its residents identify German as their primary heritage, so they’ve got the meat and starch quadrants of the dinner plate covered. But until recently, the town’s traditions did not include much in the way of fruits and vegetables. When the Heart of New Ulm team first surveyed restaurants, only 19 out of 32 offered a non-fried vegetable dish, and more than half offered no fruit whatsoever. Dieticians met with restaurant owners to discuss how they might include healthier options on their menus. Some were open to the idea. Others resisted. Some even laughed.
Virginia Suker-Moldan runs Turner Hall, the oldest bar and restaurant in New Ulm (est. 1856) and the central gathering spot for the city’s German residents. “I didn’t think there was any way it was going to fly here,” she says. “They asked us to come to a meeting, and I laughed at the other restaurateurs because they were so on board with it,” she recalls. “I thought they were being silly. I agreed to try it if they could make it profitable, but I was really just doing it to be nice.”
Fast-forward three years and Suker-Moldan is now one of the program’s most enthusiastic champions. In 2006, her menu offered only a few items—burgers, steak, ribs, chicken, walleye, brats—prepared unimaginatively and served in volume. “We’re known for our generous portions,” she says. But now there are dozens of menu items, including dinner salads and pita-bread sandwiches. And the most popular side dish is no longer fries—it’s salad. And guess what: The restaurant is more popular and profitable than ever.
Oh, My Aching Heart
Apparently, I’m not quite as healthy as I thought I was. You may not be, either.
There are only a few things that can motivate a man older than 40 to change his daily diet and exercise habits, and one of them is a death sentence from his doctor. Since I happen to fall into the primary age range for participants in the Heart of New Ulm project (40–79), I agreed to get my own health screened.
Going in, I’ll admit, I was cocky. I don’t drink (much) or smoke, I make it to the gym a couple times a week, and I eat oatmeal for breakfast. I own a juicer, too, and have even used it once or twice, so I figured my superior health was a foregone conclusion.
After giving some blood and filling out a questionnaire about my lifestyle, diet, exercise habits, stress level, etc., I sat down with the Minneapolis Heart Institute’s director of preventive cardiology, Dr. Thomas Knickelbine, to discuss my test results. He proceeded to inform me that my fasting blood sugar is high enough to be in the pre-diabetic range; my “good” cholesterol is too low; my “bad” cholesterol is too high; my waistline is a couple inches too large for my height; and, in his estimation, I could do myself a favor by losing 15–20 pounds. Furthermore, all of this put me in the “at risk” category for something called metabolic syndrome, which gives me a 9.1 percent higher chance of having a heart attack in the next 10 years and a 34.8 percent higher chance my heart will stop in 30 years.
“Most people overestimate their overall health,” Knickelbine told me dryly. “They come in here saying, ‘Hey, I’m just doing what I’ve always done,’ without realizing that’s the problem.”
Fortunately, he told me, if I cut the starch and fat in my diet, eat smaller portions, and exercise a little more, I could get my 10-year risk down to 2.8 percent and my 30-year risk lower than 10 percent.
“People don’t realize how much of a difference diet and exercise can make,” he said. He also told me that he included the 30-year number to scare me. “Telling people their 10-year risk doesn’t work—it’s not dramatic enough. But that 30-year number gets people’s attention.”
It got mine. The first thing I did was go buy a bag of carrots and blow the dust off my juicer.
Win-win-win or Lose
None of this would be working, however, if people weren’t ordering more fruit, vegetables, and salmon by choice. “We had to focus on the demand side of the equation in the first few years,” says Boucher, who is now the project’s director. “It had to be a win-win proposition for everyone. Win-win-win, really. Customers had to want it, businesses had to see a profit from it, and local farmers wouldn’t grow more fresh fruit and vegetables unless they had somewhere to sell it.”
To kick-start this demand, the project saturated New Ulm with heart-healthy messages, slogans, and information about events and programs in every possible medium: radio, TV, billboards, newspapers, magazines, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. “We want to reach people where they work, play, eat, and live,” says Boucher. But it’s not about twisting people’s arms or guilting them into eating leafy greens, she insists. “It’s about offering people choices, letting them know what their options are, and making the healthy choice the easy choice.”
Billboards on either side of town encourage citizens to “Swap It to Drop It!”—that is, have a salad instead of fries, or an apple and some nuts instead of a Snickers bar. Programs such as “Girls and Moms on the Move” and “Holiday Trimmings” encourage folks to work together toward their weight-loss goals. Restaurants display their Heart of New Ulm health ranking—gold, silver, or bronze—on decals prominently in the front window. At George’s Fine Steaks & Spirits, the first restaurant in town to receive the coveted gold ranking, there is a separate menu with smaller portions, less fat, and all of the meal’s nutritional information broken down for all to see. The town even has a cable-access TV show called What’s Cooking, New Ulm? dedicated to heart-healthier cooking. And people actually watch it.
“It’s amazing,” says CSA farmer John Knisley. “People will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, weren’t you on that cooking show?’” Knisley grew up in New Ulm, went to college in Bemidji, and two years ago moved back home to start a sustainable organic farm specializing in heirloom produce. He and his wife, Brooke, are now the proud proprietors of Alternative Roots Farm, one of several community supported agriculture ventures that have sprouted up as the demand for locally grown produce has increased.
A thoughtful, earnest, surprisingly young man, Knisley says it’s not just the older folks in town who are changing their habits and demanding better food. “Since the Heart of New Ulm started, we’ve definitely seen a change in the age demographic shifting to younger people. More younger people are wanting to eat healthier food, and they know that it’s here now.”
Knisley approaches his craft with the sort of idealism and generosity of spirit that makes you feel as if the future—or at least the future of New Ulm—is in good, if dirty, hands. Alternative Roots Farm will feed 27 families in its CSA program this year, twice as many as last year, but profits from the farm can’t support Knisley’s family yet, so he works full-time in the county’s planning and zoning department. “It’s not about picking up a box of vegetables every week, and it’s not about running a business,” he insists. “It’s about creating a relationship with these families. It’s about serving the community.”