MONTICELLO — The Monticello Community Kitchen Co-op, an idea years in the making, is sprouting and growing into existence, and flourishing into an aid for a community and county in need.
The kitchen, set to open in October, is a partnership between farmers and staff. A farm-to-table that relies on Community Support Agricultures (CSAs), where consumers buy farm shares of harvest in advance before the production begins, easing the financial burden of grocery shopping, reducing carbon footprint and guaranteeing farmer’s stable income. The concept really took shape as neighbors began cooking up plans shortly after the pandemic started.
“There have always been issues in the food chain,” Dela Ends, co-founder and board president said. “The pandemic just highlighted the problems that were already there.”
From farmer to consumer there are many people and steps in between, leading to large misconceptions and problems throughout. The Community Kitchen Co-op is simplifying this from farmers to cooks to consumers. For only $165, one can have two fully cooked meals a week with fresh and healthy local produce.
As providers of raw materials, farmers are the backbone of the economy. Yet, as Ends farmed her with her husband Tony over 25 years in Brodhead, they watched as neighbors and friends who farmed went out of business.
“The community is becoming economically depressed as more and more buy from big corporations like Walmart,” Ends said.
Farm produce can vary year to year depending on weather, prices, availability of time, and other unknown variables that can make the occupation’s profits unpredictable. One of the kitchen’s goals is to provide a more stable and fair priced income for farmers than relying on farmer’s markets or farm-to-table restaurants to sell fresh produce.
“We are flipping the script,” Ends said.
Most kitchens search for products to match their recipes. The co-op will instead rely on fresh foods available from the farmers to create dishes. Over 90% of the ingredients in the dishes will be sourced from farmers within 150 miles of the store. This leads to community economic growth as less waste as farmers won’t have to throw away excess that they couldn’t sell.
“Anything we can buy from our producers first, we do,” Ends said.
Moreover, the farmers are members of the board and have the ability to voice their concerns or opinions on the prices and how the kitchen functions.
“The pandemic was almost a blessing for us,” Ends said. “It gave us a lot of time to meet and plan out how these relationships were going to work.”
The group has created a set of by-laws for the organization and ran a pilot program out of New Glarus to test how the idea of a CSA could turn into a farm-to-table and function through the co-ops regulations to meet demands of the consumer. Six producers and six team members have invested in the co-op, working together to manage it.
Local Monroe High School teachers Eric Jubeck and James Cassidy are among the more recent members to join. Jubeck and Cassidy, alongside FL Morris, are part of another co-op, Good Earth Enterprises in Monroe. It was through Morris the teachers were introduced to the community kitchen and the possibilities it holds for the community.
“Green County is a really rich agricultural community,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy grew up in the country learning to run tractors and till soil. Jubeck learned to garden from his mother. The pair have since begun growing their own garden including beans, pumpkins, squash, and cucumbers.
“Fifty plants to us is big,” Cassidy said. “We hope to expand it further next year.”
The co-op plans to help other interested parties in getting started through educational programs geared to lift beginning farmers up and provide knowledge and support to those just starting out.
The meals may not be set for delivery just yet but the kitchen staff has been hard at work. The co-op applied for several grants allowing them to get preparations they need for the kitchen. This includes renovating their building space to best accommodate their needs and preparing food. For nearly one month, the group has been preserving foods brought in by farmers.
“It was incredible,” Jubeck said. “There were just five women standing around this mound of food as we dropped off our produce.”
After receiving their license to freeze food, the women began to have drop off days once per week where farmers could bring in their produce for the women to preserve. The equipment used in this process was attainable through The Wisconsin Economic Development Capacity (WEDC) Building Grant.
“The WEDC grant was a real blessing,” Ends said.
It bolstered $48,900 to assist in start-up funding. Much of which has been used towards the food preservation machine the staff is using to keep produce throughout the year as best they can.
Another portion has been used to reconstruct the storefront with the guidance of the state inspector. As the center of Green County, Monticello was chosen as the location for the storefront. During the pandemic Monticello had also lost three restaurants on Main Street.
“It was rather perfect to choose (Monticello),” Ends said. “It was another way to give back to the community and bring business up.”
Alongside hosting the co-op, the building will be available to hold meetings for various community groups. The former bar and restaurant will not be serving food, but used as a grab and go. The meals can be picked up at the kitchen or in designated locations. There is also a delivery option for those within 20 miles of the storefront.
Online orders of pre-subscriptions have already begun to flood in. With over 50 subscriptions having been accounted for, the group hopes to reach their goal of maintaining 100 per month the first year and move up roughly 100 every year afterward.
“We are prepared,” Ends said. “We are ready for when the seasons change and how to adjust dishes accordingly. We’ve got good chefs and great farmer stock.”
Fresh and healthy produce is more expensive than processed foods. For $10 one can buy 10 donuts. The same amount of money will only get about five apples. Processed foods in general cost less labor as much of it is done by machine.
“It is so nice to know where your food is coming from,” Cassidy said. “To know there are no chemicals or pesticides on them. People can have access to clean, healthy, affordable food.”
“We are what we eat,” Jubeck added.
One of the added amenities of this program is the ability to have the meals already cooked. Consumers do not need to prepare cookware or use time baking. The meals are at their convenience.
“This isn’t just getting fresh groceries,” Ends said. “These meals help overworked individuals get essential nutrients.”
The Community Kitchen Co-op hopes to eliminate the high price of nutritional meals for consumers to live healthier lifestyles. In order to meet unique dietary needs, the kitchen has gluten free options and other ways to accommodate all.
In the future, the co-op hopes to work with agencies to provide meals available to low-income families and the elderly. The co-op is aware they are blazing a new trail. They hope to encourage others in the communities and surrounding areas to be innovative and perhaps even start their own operations.
“We can help others avoid the pitfalls we had and create a healthier world,” Ends said.
The kitchen is to become a beacon of hope for cooperation and creativity of local solutions.
“We all do better when we all do better,” Jubeck said.
Ends believes the optimism for their organization and similar ones are only going to grow.
“We are going to take back our communities, build from the ground up,” Ends said.