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Erica Dischino / Tribune Ben Larson, one of the leaders of the MNyou Youth Garden, smiles as he talks about how the garden continues to teach youth gardening and other life skills while providing produce to the community.

MNyou garden: An oasis in a food desert

WILLMAR — Based on research from the United States Department of Agriculture, a significant portion of Willmar's population lives in a federally designated food desert, based on distance to a full-service grocery store and the number of people considered low- or moderate-income.

To assist those struggling to find and purchase healthy foods, especially fresh produce, the MNyou Youth Garden has started a community-supported agriculture program.

Under the CSA model, a person purchases a share in the operation's production and in return receives regular distribution of the produce.

"How can we have an impact on everyone in the community?" said Nate Erickson, who runs the nonprofit MNyou with Ben Larson and Mark Taylor. "This will be able to feed a lot of people."

This year MNyou has partnered with Carris Health to offer a one-for-one deal. For every full CSA share a Carris employee purchased, a second share was given free to a Carris patient who is either on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or is a senior citizen.

"They were looking for ways to get fresh fruit and vegetables into their employees' and patients' hands," Erickson said.

This year 33 shares were purchased, 30 by Carris employees. This means at least another 30 shares go to those in need.

This is the inaugural year for the one-for-one plan with Carris Health, and the data Carris will gather about how the fresh produce helped the patients who received it will then be used by MNyou to continue growing and improving the program. This could even mean creating specific bags of produce geared toward treating different medical conditions.

"We are really pumped for that," Larson said.

Due to the weather, the delivery of the produce to shareholders most likely will not begin until June. But once it does, customers will receive a variety of produce over 18 weeks.

MNyou has planted more than 750 tomato plants of six different varieties and another 600 pepper plants of eight different types. There are also eggplant, leafy greens, broccoli, squash and other plants.

This year's MNyou garden is located on two acres north of Willmar on land owned by Brent Larson. The greenhouse at the MinnWest Technology Campus has been used to start the seedlings that are transferred to the outdoor garden plot.

Six young adults are working at the garden this year. The youth are paid through a program of Central Minnesota Jobs and Training, which makes it possible for MNyou to focus its resources on the produce.

"The only thing we have to worry about funding is the food," Erickson said.

Working for MNyou is opening doors for the youth. Two youth from last year are even studying environmental sciences in college after working for MNyou.

"It has broadened the horizon of opportunities for these kids," Larson said.

Other partners of MNyou are the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership, Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Healthy Together Willmar Idea Fund.

"Blue Cross Blue Shield believed in us," Larson said.

Both Erickson and Larson believe it is the unique programming that MNyou offers that has brought partners and needed funding.

"Our one-for-one is something no one else is doing," Larson said. "We are working with kids that have never gardened before. They are planting tomatoes when they never knew where a tomato came from."

This is the third year of the MNyou organization. It started as a garden program geared toward offering underrepresented youth a place they could work, learn life skills and build relationships while selling locally grown food at area farmers markets.

That first year, Erickson and Larson said they had many grand ideas and wanted to try them all. The past two years have been about finding out what worked and what didn't and creating a MNyou that is sustainable and can offer the most assistance to the public.

"We became more realistic," Erickson said. "We change daily what we are doing."

Erickson and Larson said that they are focusing the mission of MNyou, now as a nonprofit, more toward helping combat the food desert issue, while still being a place for youth to gain valuable life experience. As the organization continues to grow, the hope is the idea will spread to other locations and help even more people.

"This is a model other people can replicate," Larson said.