Surprisingly, food deserts in the United States often exist in regions of high-volume agricultural production. In the 80-person town of Tuttle, ND – one of this year’s Citizens’ Institute on Rural DesignTM (CIRD) host communities – there is a rich history of family farmsteads, nationally renowned game hunting, and an economy dominated by cattle ranching and agriculture. Yet, residents of this fertile region don’t have many options to shop local, except for a number of cooperative community groceries in towns like Tuttle, Harvey, and Bowdon that struggle to compete with big box stores. With deliberate investments that nurture local initiatives, alongside the organization of economies of scale, local producers and small businesses can plant the seed for a healthier and more equitable food-based economy to take root in Central North Dakota and beyond, throughout the agricultural heartland of America.
Leading the charge is the Tuttle Rural Innovation Center (TRIC) – the future home to a local food incubation hub and commercial kitchen – will offer business development and educational resources in support of food entrepreneurs. The town of Tuttle, in partnership with the USDA, Strengthen ND, the ND Food Development Alliance, and the Tuttle Betterment Club, is shaping its CIRD workshop this November to focus on the repurposing and renovation of Kidder County’s old school building. The renovated school building will become a new multi-use space that highlights and leverages unique local assets: the bounties of nature, the land, and the people who inhabit it. The first of its kind in the region, TRIC is poised to build relationships among farmers, producers, and consumers, to function as a creative space for shared learning, ideas, and skills, to shed light on alternatives to existing food options. TRIC’s ultimate goal is to provide a foundation for small, family-run farms and businesses to collaborate around an economy of scale.
The challenges of nurturing a sustainable local economy and improving food security are not unique to Tuttle. In many rural towns throughout the region residents regularly travel upwards of 100 miles round-trip to reach supermarkets stocked with a greater variety of food options, at prices perceived to be more affordable than those seen on shelves at general stores or gas stations. However, this perception of value does not take into account the cost of fuel or the true cost of time on the road, such as foregone income and missed opportunities for social interaction with family and friends. That said, even if perceptions were to change, these long drives are due more to necessity than choice; massive, centralized hubs that offer a WalMart or a similar venue are the only real alternatives for purchasing food in the area. As necessity becomes routine, and routine becomes comfortable, this cycle becomes increasingly ingrained and hard to break.
Accordingly, TRIC is expected to have a three-pronged impact: reorganize the way the local food economy operates; increase access to local, healthful foods; and offer more opportunity for community interaction. With access to a common platform, smaller businesses are better equipped to collaborate. Thereby, building their collective capacity to access resources, increase production, reduce costs and thus, raise economic sustainability. It is only through this collaboration that small businesses can reap these benefits of an economy of scale—most often gained only by large corporations—and in turn, provide alternatives to the status quo. It is only through the availability of alternatives that the local culture can adopt a habit of healthy, local food consumption. Ultimately, what TRIC aims to offer is a central place for collaboration, communication, and interaction for businesses and for the community as a whole.
While the challenges at hand are not unique to Tuttle, neither are the solutions: whether through a regional alliance or a more micro-scale initiative, efforts are sprouting up across the country to localize rural economies through food business incubation. For example, the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska and the Community Farm Alliance (CFA) in Kentucky both focus on broad-reaching strategies to strengthen food business networks. The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) in Ohio manages a shared kitchen for food entrepreneurs, and furthers its impact by providing support and guidance for strategic regional business planning and scoping. SustainFloyd, in Floyd County, Virginia, hosts a community farmers’ and artisans’ market, boasts an agricultural center for production and marketing of local products, and offers agricultural and food-oriented educational programs. Additionally, in Massachusetts, the Worcester Regional Food Hub works to nurture healthy community lifestyles by increasing access to fresh, seasonal produce while supporting entrepreneurial commercial efforts.
Back in Tuttle, ND, the TRIC offers a unique, in-depth lens into this national trend, which heralds an undercurrent of change for our economy. While each of these initiatives is unique, there seem to be strong similarities among them, which point to clear lessons: healthy economies need collaboration as well as competition; we must think expansively about assets rather than limiting our initiatives to single purpose offerings; and we need to work deliberately to localize and regionalize our resources. Tuttle and its counterparts offer a model—a replicable and actionable approach—to mitigate the effects of food insecurity, and to encourage social interaction and active civic life. Rural initiatives such as the TRIC are debunking the myth that only the big city can offer a high quality of life, or a healthy meal at a great price.