The Cultivation of Local Sprouts

Picture of  Jonah Fertig, cooperative owner and co-founder of Local Sprouts Cooperative
Mission Statement of the Local Sprouts Cooperative:
“Local Sprouts focuses on using local and organic ingredients to build connections to our community, to grow sustainably, to support Maine farmers, to protect our environment and to build our local economy. We are a worker-owned cooperative that believes in creating a democratic and equitable business to serve our workers and our community.”
I must admit, the idealist in me was really excited to hear about the existence of the Local Sprouts Cooperative in Portland, Maine. In a nutshell, the mission of Local Sprouts is to provide the community with access to quality local food, while at the same time, serve as a positive example of an alternative business model where workers have ownership in the business. Currently, there are just three worker-owners and numerous volunteers. Worker-owners are able to participate in this business model after a 3-month review and are given the option of joining the cooperative after 6 months with a modest investment, work-trade or a combination of the two.
Local Sprouts is the first Community Supported Kitchen in Maine, and their business model is based on San Francisco’s successful Community Supported Kitchen Three Stone Hearth. As a worker-owned business, Local Sprouts also reminds me of many of the worker-owned cafe collectives in Portland, Oregon, such as the Red and Black Cafe, and the now defunct Back to Back Cafe and Redwing Coffee and Baking. Upon a recent visit, I had the opportunity to speak with cooperative owner and co-founder Jonah Fertig about the evolution of the Local Sprouts Cooperative.
In its early stages, the cooperative didn’t have a cafe space, but they did have a certified kitchen and did catering for area nonprofits and served as a community supported kitchen where members of the community were invited to invest $100 and were give $110 credit to order from rotating weekly menus. Member were able to order online and do pickups at the Public Market House.The cooperative used the pre-order system for about a year and a half, before they decided to open a cafe. Jonah Fertig said, “It’s about how to develop and support your community. What does your community want?” Apparently the community wanted a cafe.

Fertig talked at length about the outpouring of volunteer efforts from the community to create the space, boasting that over 200+ volunteers participated in the build-out of the cafe–and it shows. The cafe itself is beautifully designed. Clearly, a lot of attention went into creating this cheerful and inviting space, and there are many  artful touches–from the mosaic of a tree at the entrance to the handsome hand-crafted wooden furniture that still maintains the integrity of being a tree. The space has a very organic feeling. Fertig explains that the majority of capital for the creation of the cafe was raised from private donations, CSK memberships and local low-interest loans.
Now, the cafe has a menu with something for everyone, pleasing herbivores, omnivores and carnivores alike. Fertig claims that as much as 80-90% of the food is locally-sourced and the cafe uses food from many area-farms and the business strives to support local agricultural and conservation efforts in the region. Some businesses Local Sprouts supports include Turkey Hill Farm, Freedom Farm, Fishbowl Farm, Kate’s Butter and Mainely Poultry to name a few that were listed on the cooperative’s website.
The cooperative has a strong history of providing food for events and working with area nonprofits by either donating or offering discounted food when possible. Fertig explains that Local Sprouts is interested in being a resource for area school and nonprofits. The cooperative also offers classes and teaches people to cook using local food to increase awareness about local food.
Fertig also talked about the inspiration for a community space and the desire to serve as positive cooperative business model for the community. Fertig explained, “the cooperative wants to demonstrate a different system, where food is localized and people can make a real difference on a global scale.”
As a native of Maine, I can’t help but be intrigued by how the food culture in Maine has evolved in the past 10 years. My memories of food from childhood consist of lots of haddock chowder, fried seafood and french fries, and sweets galore including blueberry pie, whoopie pies, strawberry shortcake, no-bake cookies, ice cream and fudge. Now, cities like Portland, Maine are rolling with the times, connecting people to healthy local, regional and organic food. The importance of buying food from your own region has become crucial. So do yourself a favor by eating better and supporting your community. The Local Sprouts Cooperative is just one business in Portland, Maine that is doing just that. The food system is circular and by supporting businesses that support local food the money stays in the community and supports the local economy.

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