Cheryal Lee Hills
Region Five Development Commission
A new narrative about rural Minnesota is being written—not a story of decline, but one of prosperity and innovation. Not a story of isolation, but one of community and collaboration.
By all accounts, Cheryal Lee Hills and the Region Five Development Commission (R5DC) have played a major role in shaping this narrative. R5DC is a regional unit of government representing Todd, Wadena, Cass, Crow Wing and Morrison counties in central Minnesota. Residents of some of these counties face tough economic challenges, with many people living on limited incomes.
As Executive Director, Cheryal leads the organization in lending and planning for economic, community, and transportation development projects. In short, they help any initiative that works to build and improve their communities—from renewable energy to local foods.
Food is Where the Heart Is
For Cheryal, a large part of community development and livelihood is centered around food and equity. “We can’t have economic prosperity without quality of life, and we can’t have quality of life without healthy food. It’s all connected,” she says.
To improve access to healthy food, Cheryal and her team take a holistic approach and look at both the supply and demand side of food production. “We start with the need, then we see how we can tie that to opportunities and innovative partnerships in our region,” Cheryal explained. “R5DC provides financial and technical assistance to growers on the supply side, and connect that to grocery stores and consumers on the demand side.”
Two shining examples of this approach are the Choose Health Program and the SPROUT Growers and Makers Marketplace—both are R5DC flagship partner initiatives and Minnesota Food Charter strategies.
The Choose Health Program increases access to healthy food for disadvantaged populations through produce box “prescriptions” from family practitioners.
“The Choose Health Program uses food grown locally to feed people locally—which is effective because we’re not only feeding people in need, but also providing growers with additional revenue opportunities,” Cheryal said. “Ultimately, we’re addressing health and equity in a rural setting where it can be easy to stigmatize individuals who are part of a program that calls them out as being health-deprived. We’re thinking about how we deliver programs and how we meet the needs of those in our community in respectable ways.”
The SPROUT Growers and Makers Marketplace serves four primary functions: (1) a retail year-round market for growers and artists to sell locally grown commodities and diverse art; (2) a processing facility for nearby growers to create value-added products from locally grown foods; (3) a cooking demonstration kitchen; and (4) wholesale distribution of healthy foods raised on nearby farms for programs like Choose Health, Farm-2-School and Farm-2-Institution sales.
The Future Looks Bright
Cheryal knows there’s much work to be done, but thinks that if all the right dots are connected at the right time and partnerships are nourished—like with the Choose Health Program and SPROUT Food Hub—central Minnesota will leave a legacy of good health and prosperity for future generations.
“We’ve found that all revenues generated in a local food system, stay local, and are reinvested into the community—creating an economic driver for our region.” Cheryal said. “As new markets develop, jobs are created, healthier foods are more readily available to our workforce, students and seniors, and rural communities can continue to thrive.”