Lisa Schutz has sold her produce and products at the Rochester Farmer’s Market for many years. But in the last few years, she’s found ways to help both the farmers she works alongside at the market, as well as provide produce to people in disadvantaged, food insecure communities. Schutz has achieved this through the rescue and redistribution of locally grown products in southeastern Minnesota.
Schutz is Indigenous and is part of the Eastern Band Cherokee tribe. She is a member of the paint clan, known for its practice in medicine. She and her husband, a native of Rochester, moved from North Carolina to Rochester, Minnesota, 27 years ago. Schutz is retired from IBM, where she worked in government and community relations and marketing communications for emerging technologies, such as fiber optics technology.
“Rochester has become my home, and I love my community,” Schutz says. “I have many friends and supporters. I wouldn’t trade it.”
Growing and selling produce and honoring the earth
After retiring, she started her own business, Laurel Confections. “I practice Indigenous gardening techniques. I grow organic and traditional foods we’re accustomed to eating,” she explains. Through Indigenous organic urban garden beds on her property and farms on rented land, Schutz grows a variety of produce and medicinal herbs.
As an Indigenous woman who’s an elder of her tribe, Schutz follows Cherokee Nation’s path and values. She says, “I always honor the earth. I practice land stewardship. I save seeds, rotate crops and don’t use agrichemicals.” Schutz explains, “We remember to keep our feet on our path and share with our neighbors.”
Schutz sells her products at various local markets such as the Rochester Farmer’s Market, the Women’s Home Expo, FEAST and the Rochester Night Market. She has over 30 products which change depending on the season, such as three sisters’ corn salsa, fruit syrups and medicinal remedies passed down from four generations of Indigenous women. Her products are made of ingredients that are organic and Minnesota-grown. “To create our products, we either grow the ingredients used in products or use ingredients from our network of marginalized farmers in Minnesota,” she says.
A food rescue and redistribution program
Schutz started the Southeast Minnesota Food Rescue and Redistribution (SEMNFRR) program in 2019. “I saw massive amounts of food waste and saw food insecurity increasing,” she recalls.
“Our food insecurity service system and the agencies making up that system have become industrialized to meet food insecurity challenges with limited resources,” describes Schutz.
Schutz says the SEMNFRR program rescues and redistributes locally grown food to serve people in the community it is grown in. Schutz explains, “We are disrupting a system that serves unhealthy foods to marginalized communities. SEMNFRR’s mission is to go from seed to mouth. We want to think about how we can make the Minnesota food system more equitable, innovative and agile and make fresh food accessible for all.”
“We achieve this by removing barriers for people who are food insecure to have healthy food,” notes Schutz. “In the current Minnesota food system, there’s not culturally relevant food for all or fresh food for all.” She explains the food bank systems are doing the best they can within the system design they are working in.
“Additional food system infrastructure is badly needed to serve the many who are not served by the current system,” says Schutz. “Capturing food that is locally grown before it is in danger of disposal helps to eliminate this barrier, while protecting the safety of Minnesota’s food supply.”
At the end of the farmer’s market, she explains, “There are tables loaded up, but many leave the market, and their only outlet is charitable channels for their crop overages.” Many charities accept extra produce but take them as donations. The farmers then don’t make a profit on the extra produce. So, Schutz says, the SEMNFRR program model offers charitable options and provides product transportation. “We rescue as much food as we can, pay a fair price for it and directly distribute fresh food to people.”
From 2019 to 2022, the SEMNFRR program performed a microstudy that found they could rescue food from growers and reduce the carbon footprint. The grower and processor could have a profit margin. The food could then feed people in the community and reduce food insecurity. For example, they have started a project to make whole grain baked goods for food insecure homes. “We want to reduce the cost to give people good food.”
Schutz says her motivating factor is remembering where she came from. As a young, single mother, she had a little baby and a small budget, and she says hunger was a familiar challenge. She also attended college and worked at a vegetable factory. “When I was food insecure, I’d make sure the baby ate,” she remembers. Employees could get potatoes from the factory every four days, and she baked her own bread. So she ate potato sandwiches. “I’d get ketchup packets for my potato sandwiches from the gas station,” she recalls.
This is a daily reminder for her, she says, that some wonder what they will eat today, while others wonder if they’ll eat today. “It always cuts to the heart,” thinks Schutz. “At the end of the day, I want to inspire people to care.”
In 2022, Schutz says that the SEMNFRR program rescued over 15,000 pounds of food and served 8,000 pounds of food in disadvantaged communities and the agencies serving them. “We stimulate the local economy and reduce waste,” she notes.
The SEMNFRR program also supports Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) businesses. In 2022, the SEMNFRR program sold produce from the farmer’s market to 35 BIPOC-owned, female-owned and disadvantaged businesses. They sold the produce to them for less money than it would cost them to buy produce elsewhere. “We showed it’s sustainable,” Schutz shares.
“Within 50 miles of Rochester, more than 300 marginalized ag entrepreneurs are displaced six months of the year,” notes Schutz. “We want to give emerging farmers what they need and support them.” In 2022, the SEMNFRR rescued food from 16 farmers and currently has a waitlist of more than 60 under-represented participants.
The SEMNFRR program has received grants, which have allowed them to have a crate processing system. Schutz had the opportunity to visit with the legislature at the Minnesota State Capitol in 2022. The SEMNFRR program continues to apply for grants and funding for the program.
In the future, Schutz hopes to open a location for a cooperative that has a year-round point of sale for produce. She says that they would like to have community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes and options for people to sponsor boxes for food insecure people. Schutz also describes wanting to have services such as a healthy food lifestyle education service hub that would include a community kitchen, a retail store and areas of education. “We want to teach growers how to market their products and have food-centered cultural events. We want to enrich the Rochester community and talk about different cultures.” The business incubator hub project is called Rural Entrepreneurship Center for Leadership in Agriculture, Innovation, and Multicultures (RECLAIM).”
To set up the cooperative, Schutz notes, they’ll need funding, which she’s pursuing. “We want to have it close to disadvantaged communities.”
“Many people who need a food bank have no way to get there, such as lack of public transportation or mobility,” explains Schutz. “So let’s make it happen, go from seed to mouth and reduce the cost to give people good food.”
Learn more at the Southeast Minnesota Food Rescue and Redistribution program website at https://www.mnfoodrescue.com/home.