Can a natural foods store go from the first spark of an idea to a grand opening in just eight months? Why, yes. Yes, it can.
In March of last year, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Tribal Council met to discuss possible uses for a new building across the street from Mystic Lake Casino. The space, built at the same time as a new credit union, had been slated for offices that didn’t pan out.
Lori Watso, a community health worker and Shakopee Community member, remembers rushing to the microphone. That building, she told the group, would be perfect for a natural foods store, something she felt the community desperately needed. Watso made a formal presentation at the tribe’s general meeting in May; designers and contractors were mobilized almost immediately, and on November 22 of last year, Mazopiya opened its doors. (The word means “storehouse” in Dakota. Pronounce it with the stress on the long “o”: maz-OH-pee-ya.)
The 6,500-square-foot store looks an awful lot like your friendly neighborhood coop: A bright, clean produce area welcomes shoppers; familiar brands like Amy’s, Seventh Generation, and Kadejan Farms fill the shelves. Chef Andrew Knowland is on site to fill the deli cases with roast chicken and vegetarian-friendly salads. There’s even a small coffee bar, a couple of tables, and a well-equipped community room for classes. Wooden bowls by native artisans are for sale, along with the tribe’s own brand of bottled water, Mni-Yuska. Even the building itself has the right credentials: It’s heated with geothermal energy and the exterior is silver LEED certified. The tribe is working on paperwork to certify the interior renovations.
Before Mazopiya opened, the nearest natural foods store to the Shakopee reservation was Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville, a half-hour drive. Even the nearest Cub and Super Target are four or five miles away. Picking up milk on the reservation meant a stop at a convenience store. Mazopiya’s location in a newish mini mall on a main road and within walking distance of a residential neighborhood should be a slam dunk for any kind of grocery store.
But Watso doesn’t want convenience to be the only benefit the store brings to the community. “I don’t want people to shop here because it’s the only place,” she says. I want them to gain an appreciation for clean food and what it can do for their bodies.”
“I want to address the chronic health issues that not only we [the Shakopee Tribe] experience, but the native community as a whole and the general population. I want to help people with heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, obesity, and cancer,” Watso says. “However, I’ve become kind of tired of talking to people about these things. The best thing to do is provide people with good food. If we eat right, many of those chronic conditions will go away.”
Watso started her campaign for better eating on the reservation last April with a 1.5-acre community garden. This summer the garden will become more of a small farm, expanding to 5.5 acres, and offering 50 CSA shares, which will be marketed first to tribal members and then to employees of the tribe’s 11 enterprises. Some of the produce from the garden will also be sold at Mazopiya, while other crops will be grown especially for the restaurants at Mystic Lake Casino and Playworks, the tribe’s daycare and summer camp.
“I’m glad to say I’ve become a bit of a farmer,” Watso says with a smile.
Watso describes her efforts in terms of concentric circles, targeting first the tribal members themselves, then the 4,130 employees, and then the larger community. “I feel very fortunate to be able to focus on our community and see those benefits ripple out to the larger community,” she says.
Shakopee Tribal Administrator Bill Rudnicki says that Mazopiya fits in with a decade-long larger effort to improve health and wellness for the community. The tribe has opened a recreation center and expanded a dental clinic. It also maintains a wellness center that provides vision care, physical therapy, a chiropractor, and more. There’s even a pharmacy and health center inside the casino for tribal members and employees.
“One of the things Lori saw is that we’re doing all these great things for our health… but what we’re putting into our bodies is not the right thing,” says Rudnicki. “We call it ‘health sovereignty’ or ‘food sovereignty’ and it really was the missing link.”
Watso, proud to see her vision come to fruition, is already looking to the future. She is developing classes to be held at Mazopiya, first for employees and then for the community at large, to cover everything from the benefits of organic food to gluten-free cooking. She is also working to add more Dakota signage to the store.
“And don’t be surprised if you come back some time and we have meatless Mondays in the deli,” she adds. “I don’t get on my soapbox too often about the benefits of a plant-based diet, but…”
And then there’s what you might call the “Main Street” effect, creating a natural gathering place where Shakopee members and their neighbors can expect to run into each other. Watso describes a recent evening when she was in the store with about six other shoppers and realized they were all members of the Shakopee tribe. “It really felt like community,” she says.
2571 Credit Union Dr
Prior Lake, MN