Uptown Locavore fights to keep raw food buying club in business

Uptown Locavore founder Will Winter, pictured at the drop site the city closed down this month at 3137 Hennepin Ave.

Uptown Locavore, a drop site with raw dairy, meats and other foods from local farmers, plans to fight the city’s recent action to shut down the private buying club.

Less than two months after the “indoor farmers market” relocated to 3137 Hennepin Ave., inspectors arrived on May 3 and placed all of the food under embargo to prohibit its sale, citing an unlicensed food establishment.

“We’re a much more visible target here,” said proprietor Will Winter, who said the prior location at 3217 Hennepin Ave. operated for years entirely by word of mouth, without signage, under the name Traditional Foods.

City staff said they were pursuing an anonymous complaint shared by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. At issue is the sale of raw milk, said Dan Huff, the city’s environmental health director. He said Uptown Locavore’s website indicates that it carries milk from Hartmann’s Dairy, or M.O.M.’s, a farm that the Minnesota Department of Health flagged as causing E. coli cases in 2010. An attorney with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund contests whether the state fully proved illnesses were linked to the farm.

The sale of raw milk is legal in Minnesota under certain conditions. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture says it is legal for customers to buy raw milk directly from farmers at the farm where the milk was produced. In some states like California, farms that pass inspection can legally sell raw milk in stores, and in other states like Ohio, all raw milk sales are illegal.

Winter said he probably wouldn’t operate the buying club if not for the raw dairy, which includes ice cream, butter, cheese and milk. Some families with four or more kids buy four gallons of raw milk per week, he said.

“It tastes like a vanilla milkshake. It’s sweeter and more flavorful,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that raw milk and products made from it can cause severe health risks, including death, because it has not undergone pasteurization to kill bacteria. The CDC reports that heath risks exist at even the most sanitary farms.

“While it is possible to get foodborne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all,” states the CDC.

Winter maintains that raw milk is not as dangerous as people perceive, and said he’s walked away from dairy farms he didn’t like. He said all of Uptown Locavore’s meat is processed in licensed facilities.

“If one person is sick, that [meat processing] plant is toast,” he said. “… Every bite has to be safe.”

He argues that if stores down the street can sell cigarettes and alcohol, products with indisputable health impacts, knowledgeable adults should be allowed to buy raw dairy. And if a few families can informally buy a cow and split up the beef, he said, why not 400 families? He said Uptown Locavore is his “expensive hobby,” meant to be a public service and provide sustainable income for farmers, particularly farmers that treat animals well.

“This is not a money-making operation,” he said. “It was set up from day one to never be a store.”

“I would never eat food from a farm I didn’t like,” Winter says. “…If you’re selling raw milk, you don’t have any grace. It has to be perfect.”
“I would never eat food from a farm I didn’t like,” Winter says. “…If you’re selling raw milk, you don’t have any grace. It has to be perfect.”

About 200 members pay a $50 annual membership or apply for a volunteer membership, Winter said. They sign an agreement that frees the club from any liability related to dairy products.

“It’s just too bad they’ve come down on them so hard with this,” said Kingfield resident Dean Amundson, who said he buys direct from farmers and has known Winter for years. “… It’s just so much better to eat homegrown vegetables and locally grown meat.”

Long before launching Uptown Locavore, Winter said he sold farm-fresh food out of his garage for a decade in the early 2000s. He later launched the Traditional Foods Warehouse on 61st Street with two other partners, he said, where they grew to nearly 2,000 members. Winter said the business generated high debts and he decided to leave. He said state investigators arrived at the warehouse one week later.

Minnesota Administrative Law Judge Amy J. Chantry said in court documents that Traditional Foods Warehouse at 302 W. 61st St. was an unlicensed food establishment, and state inspectors ordered it to shut down in June 2010 after discovering a farmer leasing space there was selling raw milk. A 2011 search of leased space at the warehouse yielded another embargo of unpasteurized dairy products and another order to discontinue operation, according to court documents.

Winter is also the founder of Uptown Veterinarian, still in operation at 3131 Hennepin Ave.

The Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine suspended Winter’s license in 1999 for not meeting professional standards. Among other issues, the board said he reused needles and syringes, withheld information about conventional Western treatments and kept inadequate records. Earlier in 1997, the board instituted a conditional license after determining that he tried to modify animal behavior by withholding food and used an animal control pole or noose.

Winter attributed the license suspension to his goal of running a holistic animal hospital, which became a “last hope hospital” for pet owners who had already tried everything to save their dying pets. He said there is no malpractice mercy for vets who pursue alternative treatments like homeopathy, acupuncture or herbs.

“Knowing I could never adopt myself back into conventional practice, I decided to sell my hospital and move onwards,” he said in an email.

During the unannounced inspection of Uptown Locavore on May 3, health inspectors documented foods like sourdough bread, pizza dough, organic coffee, fresh unprocessed milk, raw milk Monterey Jack cheese, Mangalitza pork and Alaskan sockeye salmon. Some of the food is from Thousand Hills Cattle Co., where Winter is a consultant, and from Lucky Pig Farm, a business where Winter partners with farms to raise his pigs.

“All my food is locked up, and now I have to go to Lunds,” Winter said.

Huff, the city’s environmental health director, said there are plenty of other ways to buy direct from farmers in Minneapolis, and the city employs a fulltime staff person to support locally grown food.

“We have 29 farmers markets in Minneapolis, more than any community in the state,” he said.

Winter countered that farmers markets don’t work for everyone, and co-ops don’t always carry “mom-and-pop” farms. Farmers who participate in markets often wake in the middle of the night, drive many miles and find they haven’t brought the best-selling produce, he said.

“Not every farmer has the personality or the time to sit there every Saturday,” he said. “… I have nothing against farmers markets, but they don’t meet the needs of all people. And you can’t have raw dairy there.”

Huff said the embargoed dairy likely needs to be condemned, but he hopes to return the meat and fish to the producers.

Winter said he plans to fight the closure with the help of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund.