May 27—Jim Gehrke's goal is to scale up local organic food systems across the state and beyond and he's doing it by hand delivering fresh produce one bag at a time.
"I was initially interested in local food systems because of the economic development potential," he said. "That's still a driver, and an important one. But I'm increasingly concerned about climate change, and the need to diversify food production in order to make all our communities more resilient."
Gehrke, founder of Healthy Share GBC, has been delivering locally grown and organic food to subscribers each week for more than a year and half. Now his startup business is a semifinalist in the Minnesota Cup competition, the largest statewide entrepreneurial contest in the country.
Now living in Northfield, Gehrke's business plan has its roots in Mankato's local food scene.
While living in the Mankato area and working for Minnesota Valley Action Council, Gehrke developed a business plan that led to the creation of the MVAC Food Hub. That plan also earned him a spot in the MN Cup competition in 2013, and he earned the top award that year in the social entrepreneur category.
Gehrke also has customers in the Mankato area for his Healthy Share business (ourhealthyshare.com).
Denise Urban, of Amboy, first learned about Healthy Share on Facebook and is a big fan.
"Every Monday I get a bag delivered to my door. They send an email out Sunday saying what you will be getting. I plan my meals around what I'm getting, which is kind of fun rather than planning and then getting what you need."
Urban said the delivery of fresh produce was especially nice during the past year when much of society was shut down from the pandemic.
"It's been been great for me. I can't say enough good about it. It's all fresh and organic," she said of Healthy Share.
"The really cool thing about Healthy Share is that it's an affordable way for people to improve their diet while both strengthening their community economically and decreasing the environmental impact of food production and distribution," Gehrke said.
Customers who sign up get fresh produce delivered to their door weekly. Gehrke said the mid-level subscription, which has produce for two to three people, is just under $40 per week.
"People are blown away by how good and fresh the produce is and how much of it comes from local farms."
Gehrke said 59% of Healthy Share's annual food purchases were from farms within about 150 miles in 2020. This year he expects about 65% of the food to be locally grown.
In the winter he sources food from an organic wholesaler that supplies produce to co-ops throughout the Midwest.
He said that once more subscribers are on board, it will make more sense for local farmers to extend their growing season through greenhouses and other techniques. Gehrke said paying local farmers a fair price and growing their operations while also providing healthy food for customers is the whole idea of his business model.
He said that while he delivers the food to about a 50-mile radius, his business model allows for the concept to expand anywhere there is a community kitchen available for use. "It can be set up in any city and serve 50 miles around it."
While he so far has a few dozen subscribers from Eden Prairie to Eagan and down to the Mankato area, the business is already sustainable and it's growing. Gehrke said they've just begun a real marketing effort to gain more subscribers.
Healthy Share is also the centerpoint of a $200,000 Bush Foundation grant to increase access to healthy and indigenous foods for Prairie Island Indian Community.
Gehrke said the Healthy Share model could benefit many rural communities and inner-city food deserts.
"We'll create living-wage jobs, support local farms and decrease the amount of fossil fuels burned along the way. And you can actually see and be part of the progress. You're doing more than buying groceries."
The Minnesota Cup is coordinated by the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and has awarded more than $4 million in seed money to startups since 2005.
This year 88 businesses in a number of different categories are in the semifinal round, competing for $400,000 in funding.
In July top winners in each category will begin competing for the top MN Cup award.