Mille Lacs Health System

12 08 2009

By Sarah Milnar

Wrinkled hands tightly grasped cuttinDSC_7666g knives, carefully slicing radishes, wedging potatoes and chopping green beans. They worked slowly. Those who could grip a knife came to help. Others just came to visit. Amidst the sea of walkers and wheelchairs, furrowed faces and wafting white hair, Gladys held her knife with authority.

“It takes power to cut these babies,” said Gladys, placing an experienced hand on the dull side of her knife and forcefully chopping into a fresh baby red potato. From a family of 15 children, Gladys is no stranger to preparing food. But it’s difficult to tell whether Gladys likes to cook or if it’s a duty she’s grown fond of.

“Like it or not, you gotta do it,” she said.

Gladys and eight other residents of the Mille Lacs Health System Nursing Home in Onamia, Minnesota, gathered to chop vegetables as an activity the afternoon before MLHS’s monthly themed meal. Each month, nursing home residents choose the theme of a noontime meal to share with friends and family in the hospital dining hall. Themes of the past have included Mexican and country-style, but July’s theme brought the meal a little closer to home: local foods.

“I am very excited to have the opportunity to work with local growers and provide the freshest produce possible to serve our customers,” said Shaye Vensel-Hein, MLHS director of Nutritional Services. “We want this to be just like home. Bringing in fresh produce is what the residents remember from home. Or it’s what we hope they remember.”

The Mille Lacs area has a rich agricultural history, and many of the 54 nursing home residents grew up on a farm. Some had victory gardens during World War II. Others simply understood the benefits of homegrown food from their days before the advent of large-scale supermarkets.

DSC_7686“They miss their homegrown foods,” said Shaye.

The local foods meal was the kick-off to what members of MLHS hope to be a long tradition of building community and supporting their local food-system. As the growing season continues, MLHS will supplement fresh, locally grown produce with foods from their corporate vendor for the more than 400 meals served daily at MLHS. The Dietary Department will work with local growers to build seasonal produce into MLHS’s daily menu.

All of the farm-fresh food came from just over a 30-mile radius of Mille Lacs Health System. Josephine Rapatz of Onamia provided onions, garlic and chard. She even donated her old-time recipe for cream style chard popular among “old folks.” Chuck Long of Green Bush Farms in Milaca provided turnips, potatoes, red onions and zucchini for the stir-fry. The radishes came from the Onamia farm of Ben and Karen Korte. Additional lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, green beans, peppers and onions came from MLHS’s on-site community garden.

Swedish meatballs are a favorite of many of the residents, so the kitchen team used pork provided by Barb Eller. Barb grew up in Onamia, and said she always knew many of the ladies now in the nursing home as “Mrs. So-and-So.” Now Barb stops by MLHS each week to collect potato skins to feed her pigs and say hello to the ladies that have become a part of her extended family. “It’s hard for me to see them in the situation they’re in,” said Barb. “But on the other hand, it’s nice to do something to help them smile for the day because they still reach out to help me smile.”

DSC_7698The nursing home residents do, without a doubt, bring out smiles. Some, like Irene, will pose for the camera by dramatically putting an arm behind a tilted head. Others, like Alice, will tell you their life stories.

After complications with multiple sclerosis caused her to resign from her position as Ramsey County deputy sheriff, Alice worked as a cook in the Ramsey County Jail. She always enjoyed cooking for staff and inmates, but noted how easy it was to open a can of green beans and serve them salty and soggy. There’s more to it than spaghetti,” said Alice, of serving balanced meals.

Now Alice has lost use of the entire right side of her body. She gets herself around by feebly shifting the joystick on her motorized wheelchair with her left hand. But she still showed up to help prepare produce before the local foods meal. With one hand on a circular knife, she halved green beans.

The next day Alice wasn’t feeling well. She picked at the green beans she helped cut from her room.

Shaye said it’s often difficult to get the nursing home residents to eat. Age or medication can weaken the palate, causing food to loose its appeal and satisfaction.

“In the hospital they’re sick,” she said. “But if we can get them to look at the food and have it look pleasing to they eye, that’s a goal. If we can get them to say the food smells good, that’s a goal. If we can get them to eat the food and they say they like it, then we’ve hit our plateau.”

But there are nutritional challenges involved in hitting the plateau. The MLHS kitchen team must steam vegetables until they are soft to the chew, but not so much that the food loses nutrients. Instead of just opening canned purees, MLHS purées everything on site, a job that takes more time and effort, but produces more nutritious results.

When it comes to the nutritional differences between food grown locally and food that is processed and packaged, Danna Woods, the hospital’s registered dietitian, said MLHS always keeps food quality in mind. “The more distance and time that a food travels, the quality of the food may be compromised,” she said. “If produce can be purchased locally, in many cases the produce can be picked and served the same day or within a couple of days. The quality of this produce iSnapshot 2009s much higher.”

Shaye agreed that it all comes down to food quality and presentation, and tossing in fresh and local flavors is ideal. She noted that there’s other ways to flavor food rather than just adding salt. “There’s garlic, onions, basil,” she said. “And if it’s fresh from the garden, it tastes worlds better and gives the sensation the elderly need to make them want to eat.” Shaye also stressed the importance of garnish on the table or plate. A radish flower and onion set arranged nicely upon a bed of leaf lettuce added a sudden charm to the tables at the local foods meal.

It seemed as though nurses couldn’t get the steaming plates out to residents quickly enough. Harriet, who had sliced potatoes the day before using a blue cafeteria tray as a makeshift cutting board, eyed the food her tablemates had received first. “Well where’s mine?” she impatiently asked a nurse. “It’s coming, Harriet.”

Moments later Harriet had her own heaping plate. “Oh, this is good,” she said as she chewed a forkful of Yukon gold potatoes with butter and garlic. “And I was so damn hungry.”


Jo Rapatz

31 07 2009

by Sarah Milnar

Josephine Rapatz’s graying hair flew wildly behind her as she emerged from behind the house that had been blocking the wind from her face. She collected the hair from behind her head and wove it skillfully into a braid. There was dirt under her fingernails. She’d just been weeding.

“When you start playing with dirt when you’re little, you never stop,” she said.

Jo learned to play with dirt with her grandfather, on the same 58-acre farm she and her husband, Allen, currently own in Onamia, Minnesota. Her father bought the land just after World War II, but her grandfather had owned an adjoining farm since 1908. Together, the family has always valued homegrown food and sharing labor and resources.

“It’s a moral thing,” said Jo. “Growing up in the country, you see that everything you do affects something else. It’s an ecosystem, and growing up that way builds that into your values system.”

Jo shared her labor and resources with Mille Lacs Health System by providing fresh Swiss chard, green onions, radishes, parsley and garlic for MLHS’s Local Foods Meal. Jo also contributed her old-time recipe for creamed chard, which she said the “old folks” of MLHS’s nursing home would love. They did.

DSC_7808The recipe came from an aluminum file cabinet on Jo’s kitchen counter. “I tell the kids, ‘If there’s ever a fire, the first thing you grab is that file,’” said Jo as she gestured to the neatly labeled stacks of drawers. There are recipes for everything from Jo’s father’s Dutch family bread to a cornbread-topped meat pie with round steak strips, squash and onion she calls “tamale pie.”

It’s those old-time, homegrown recipes that Jo says have kept her healthy through the years. Although she’s recently developed diabetes, most likely from genetic causes, doctors initially didn’t think to test for it because her diet was so wholesome from the food she produces and cooks herself. “Most people don’t realize that you can eat very well and very satisfying when you have diabetes,” she said. For examples, Jo makes great-tasting pudding with a third of the sugar. She also makes her own ketchup, an item that has an unexpectedly high amount of sugar when bought at the grocery store.

Jo learned from her upbringing on the farm that processing food destroys fiber and takes out nutrients. “I spent many years saying ‘you could make that,'” Jo noted as she positioned stainless steel coffee maker on the front burner of her natural gas stove. She likes old stoves. Electric burners won’t heat low enough to simmer anything properly. Jo makes just about everything from scratch. She will order rice and beans from co-ops in 25 to 50 pound bags, but buys few things from the grocery: balsamic vinegar and avocados.

Jo comes from a family of innovative cooks, and can’t remember a time when she wasn’t inventing and exchanging new recipes on the farm. Cooking used to be an aspect of socialization when farmers hired help during the harvest. Trading labor with neighbors always involved a meal. It was a celebration, she said. When restaurants and a healthy produce selection at the grocery were few and far between, Jo said people had to grow their own food. “If you wanted to have a nutritious meal, you had to make it yourself,” she said.

DSC_7811The walls of Jo’s kitchen are lined with shelves, just deep enough to hold mason jars filled with homegrown herbs and spices. One side of the kitchen is entirely dedicated to teas. The raspberry leaves, rose hips and juniper berries leave a sweetened musk in the room that is only overtaken by coffee brewing on the stovetop. Jo turned off the burner and retrieved a jar of fresh goat’s milk from her basement cold room. The milk came from the farm of Jo’s childhood friend, Barb Eller.

“If you want to be healthy and enjoy your food, grow you own,” said Jo as she spooned the white cream from the top of the milk into her coffee. “Or buy it from someone who is growing it in a healthy way.”

Jo knew she had a call to organic farming from a young age. She was always her grandfather’s “right hand man,” and had a hard time staying away from the country when she attended the University of Minnesota on the St. Paul campus. As she completed her design degree, she supplemented her textile courses with horticulture courses. Jo caught on quickly. Although she became well versed in landscaping and growing techniques, she said at the time the university did not focus on organic farming practices. That’s when growing healthy food became a question of ethics for Jo.

“I knew it wasn’t sustainable to be putting chemicals on the soil,” she said.

Ever since Jo bought the farm from her father, she’s upheld the organic lifestyle. She weeds by hand, except when she lets her chickens run loose in her sweet corn and asparagus patches to weed for her. She calls them “chicken tractors.” Jo also rotates her crops and keeps chemicals off the farm. She even sprays her apple trees and grape vines with her natural, homemade jalapeno sauce to keep deer from eating her fruit without needing pesticides.

Jo likes to know the source of her seed, and she wants it organic. She saves seeds from every plant she can, and gathers heirloom varieties from neighbors, friends and family. Among her heirloom seeds are tomatoes, squash, and four 400-foot rows of garlic. “I like garlic,” said Jo with a chuckle. She keeps apple trees, raspberries and blueberries growing at another property in Onamia. Jo occasionally sells her product at area farmers’ markets, but because her farm is visible from Highway 169, travelers headed north to their cabins often stop at her door and ask if she’s got anything to sell.

DSC_7824“The economy is changing. Lifestyles are changing,” said Jo. Travelers are interested in pulling into the small farm on the highway to buy fresh produce. They want to check out the cattle barn Jo’s father crafted out of aluminum with a handsaw before electricity came to the area. And they want to come back for more. “People are realizing that processed food is not healthy, and they’re starting to buy locally.”

Jo hopes this will bring a better economy back to the local community of her family’s heritage. Jo’s sister has a farm close by, and her aunt owns the farm next door. Farming has always been a family affair. “If you’re going to have a family that’s a healthy family, you need to work together and you need to eat together,” said Jo. “When you work together you’ll understand each other better and be a healthier social person. And we all enjoy good food.”

To view more photos of Jo Rapatz and her farm, please see the Flickr slideshow.

Eller Family Farm

22 07 2009

by Sarah Milnar

The wide brim of a tan felt hat shaded Barb Eller’s eyes as she ambled through her pastures. She moved slowly and spoke softly, calling affectionately to her goats and ponies by name. Then she shoved her weight against the creaking gate of a new pasture.

“Pigs!” she called with an unexpected gusto. “Where’s my pigs?”

From behind an auburn shed came the playful grunts and snorts of 12 hogs. Their little hooves trampled through the sand as the hogs scuttled to Barb’s inviting calls.

Barb Eller - Sarah Milnar“Hello, hello,” she sang, giving a special greeting to a brown hog named Little Guy.

“Little Guy was the runt of the litter,” said Barb. “They said I should have named him Wilbur. But then I thought, ‘Could I b-u-t-c-h-e-r Wilbur?’”

Barb doesn’t talk about what happens in that auburn shed in front of the pigs.

“But they have a good life until they meet their destiny,” she said.

This time, the destiny of some of those little pigs was to feed the elderly of the Mille Lacs Health System Nursing Home in Onamia, Minnesota. Barb’s pork became savory Swedish meatballs in a peppery cream sauce for MLHS’s Local Foods Meal. Swedish meatballs are a favorite of many nursing home residents, and they raved of the good quality meat. But such quality starts right in Onamia.

Barb makes sure all her pigs, cows and goats have room to roam over 140 acres of farm and forest. They need that Little Guy - Sarah Milnarspace to run, even play. “Hogs are joyful creatures,” said a smiling Barb. “They’ll play like dogs.” In the confinement facilities of many large farms, animals are packed in so tightly they have no hope for such a joyful life. Barb has great respect for the purpose of all her animals and does her best to ensure a pleasant, natural life until it is fulfilled.

The animals are free to graze around a number of pastures and eat a variety of grasses and plants for a completely organic diet. The natural exercise makes their meat lean, but not so lean that it dries out and looses flavor. The natural diet brings out a peppery spice that make the tongue tingle, hinting that the meat has been seasoned with something—but it hasn’t.

“I tell people, ‘Don’t season it till you taste it,’” Barb said.

Barb makes her sausage from the whole hog and keeps flavor enhancer MSG far from her meats. The fertilizer for her vegetable garden and pastures is her own cow-horse-chicken-hog compost. Barb weeds everything by hand without the help of herbicides or pesticides.

“The experts say you’ve gotta be a grass farmer first,” Barb said as she uprooted a pretty yellow buttercup from her pasture. Those seemingly delightful little flowers give cows mouth blisters. “Then you let the animals harvest your crop.”

The wellbeing of Barb’s animals goes back to the basics: rich soil and wholesome grasses. People’s wellbeing is the same way. During her 34 years as a registered nurse, always told her patients that a change in diet would lead to a change in health. Fresh, nutrient-dense food is the way to go, and where better to get it than locally? Barb has always had a passion for healthy eating, even when 24 of her nursing years sent her traveling the world with the Army Nurse Corps. From developing of combat strategies for surgical teams to supervising an evacuation hospital in Saudi Arabia, “I always had a garden wherever I went in the world,” said Barb. “Even if it was a tomato in a pot.”

Now Barb has made it her mission to keep her community out of the hospital by providing good, healthy food. She and her husband, Paul, returned to Onamia in 2002 to take over the farm on which Barb grew up. Her parents, Fran and Rich Eller, began the farm in 1947 with just 20 acres and a milk cow. The farm has since diversified to sell custom processed grass-fed beef and pork, pastured heirloom meat chickens, free-range chicken eggs, fresh goats milk and garden produce.

In the garden, a pink rosebush still flourishes where Barb’s parents planted it 60 years ago. A red gate, mainly to keep out goats Flodemi and her baby Felix, guards the area. The goats kindly mow the lawn for Barb, but they’ll also gobble up the spicy mustard leaves and crisp-clean kale in the garden. Barb would like to have a larger garden, but her animals take top priority.

Spritz - Sarah Milnar“Cows! Where’s my babies?” Barb shouted into her pasture, seemingly vacant save for the butternut trees wet with rain. She checks on the cows often. “Tinkerbell, Spritz, Sprite, Mr. Gump,” she called. Then through the butternut trees came the rustle of branches. The ground shook as more than 20 cows emerged from the trees. They stood nearly as tall as Barb.

Barb cooed over a particularly glossy black cow named Dew Drop. Dew Drop lost her calf in the spring, so Barb milked the cow’s colostrum and used it to feed piglets born weak in the litter. Dew Drop was a Godsend, Barb said.

But if these Godsends can come among animals, they can certainly come among people. Barb said there has been wonderful cooperation within her community to keep the area sustainable and healthy. “We have the land base to feed our people,” said Barb. “We can come together as a community and feed our people.”

And together they have come. Local growers have organized farmers’ markets in neighboring Onamia, Isle and Wahkon. Barb is the chair of the Onamia Area Farmer’s Market, and said the Initiative Foundation’s Health Community Partnership has been a great funding help with first-year sponsor Marge Agnew, president of the Onamia Area Civic Association. Barb has also been organizing shuttle system for seniors in the area to the market. Volunteer Allysa Ness has donated a van for the initiative, and Darlene Stone of MLHS plans to bring seniors from the Nursing Home and Lake Song Assisted Living. Barb is also working to start a community garden, a Farm to School program, and a way to bring good food to low-income residents.

Barb is constantly researching new methods to enrich and renew her community, and she’s extremely proud of everyone’s efforts thus far. “Maybe it’s a thing with farmers, but they just like to work together to get the job done. They know it’s hard and they need their neighbors’ help,” she said. “And I’m blessed with good neighbors.”

To view more photos of the Eller Family Farm, please see the Flickr slideshow.