Whether it is fresh vegetables from a local farm, grain produced on the Iron Range or chickens raised by neighbors, the flavors of the region - and the chance to build a thriving regional economy - have been growing increasingly popular among Northeastern Minnesota residents.

For years, the unincorporated community of Finland in Lake County has served as a hotspot of activity in the work to increase production and access to locally produced foods. These efforts are driven by the desire to "empower our community and build a sustainable local economy," Finland resident Kaare Melby said.

The community claims a thriving farmers market, a number of farms and many residents who grow, raise or wild harvest a portion of their diet. Finland's community center hosts educational events about how to access and use local foods. But there is a lot more work to be done.

"We are hoping to reclaim our economic and food sovereignty," Finland resident David Abazs said. Some residents imagine a day when Finland might be able to source all of its diet from the region and serve as the central hub for a regional food system in Northeastern Minnesota.

The Friends of Finland organization has received a 37-month, $210,000 Community Innovation Grant from the Bush Foundation to support this effort to build a sustainable local food system.

On Saturday, April 6, at 5:30 pm, there will be a community meeting open to anyone interested in getting involved in Finland's food system work, whether they live in Finland or the broader Arrowhead region. The meeting will take place at the Finland Community Center; a locally themed meal and child care will be provided.

The meeting will include a community visioning process to brainstorm what an increasingly localized food system might look like and will also identify tangible projects the community wants to pursue toward that vision.

The purpose of the Bush Foundation grant is to "support collaborations for problem solving," said Margaret Arzdorf-Schubbe, consultant with the Bush Foundation's Community Innovation Team.

Arzdorf-Schubbe described the problems this will help address as the "lack of access to healthy food and the region's limited opportunities to build local wealth and food sovereignty."

Many see local food systems as a point of hope for addressing these issues. Honor Schauland, director of Friends of Finland, pointed out the potential of a local food system to keep the community vibrant by strengthening the local economy. A recent study, "Local Food as an Economic Driver," released by the state agency Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, examined the impact of local food on the Taconite Assistance Area, a region that covers much of Northeastern Minnesota.

The study found that if the region to shift 20 percent of its food purchasing to locally produced products, $51 million per year would be retained in the regional economy. Furthermore, a 100 percent local food system would keep up to $256 million in the region annually.

It would also create up to 3,500 permanent jobs in food production and processing, serving as an engine of local economic development.

Proponents of a local food system also point out its potential to strengthen community integrity and resilience. Consumers can "know the producers, see where the food is produced and know it's produced responsibly," Melby said.

Schauland noted that "local food just tastes better," as it is generally fresher and less processed than its mass-produced counterparts. Since locally produced foods are often nutrient-dense whole foods, she emphasized the opportunity to improve community health.

With all of these benefits, why are we not eating locally already?

"The subsidized global food market has created relatively low food prices," explained Abazs, who has been farming in Finland for 30 years. "But this cheap food doesn't account for the true costs, things like increasing health care expenses, low wages for workers and destruction of soil fertility."

Finland is uniquely situated to spearhead a local food system for several reasons. Schauland explained how Finland's relative geographical isolation "forces community interdependence" where people of many backgrounds are inclined to work together. The influence of the Finnish homesteaders who moved to the area in the early 1900s also lives on in the community's spirit of cooperation and desire to live off the land.

"People here still have that cultural memory of how to survive sustainably and traditionally" said Melby, "so we have the history to know (a local food system) is possible."