What a waste. Nearly 62% of the food entering our state's landfills could have been eaten or donated, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). Enter Natasha Frost, of Mankato, who is spearheading multipronged efforts to reduce food waste, improve nutrition for kids and implement policies and systems supporting overall community health. The University of Minnesota-educated attorney returned to her hometown in 2014 after 10-plus years of nonprofit practice in Los Angeles. At Wooden Spoon in Mankato's Old Town, she leads a woman-driven staff that shares her vision of promoting social justice through proper nutrition, food security and elimination of food waste. She tells us more below about the waste-conscious cafe and catering business emphasizing regional producers.
Q: How did your interests in law and food collide?
A: I went into law to provide justice to community, without an initial area of focus. I first advocated for domestic violence survivors and then worked with a Los Angeles nonprofit that served children and families navigating the foster care system; that involved the world of benefits. When I returned to Minnesota, viewing justice through the lens of public health made it a natural fit to move to food, because in all my areas of legal practice, food — affording it, acquiring it, putting it on the table — was a central concern.
Q: You also cater for special events, which includes area Head Starts, child-care centers, charter schools and a nonprofit serving underprivileged youth. Does it bother you to see kids eat junk?
A: There's a direct correlation between people lacking access to quality food and adverse health outcomes. I want to do my part to help kids form healthier habits in relation to food, and that's why we provide healthful, minimally processed, good-tasting meals for the kids we serve. Kids are young and impressionable, with different palates and food experiences than adults, but we can make food they want to eat as healthful as possible. It's really important because their futures are on the line. They may face other barriers — racism, sexism, a lack of generational wealth, poverty, homophobia, transphobia — and I can't wave a magic wand to make all that go away, but there is some comfort in knowing they don't have to worry about their next meal by offering good food to nourish their developing brains and bodies.
Q: Earlier this year, you helped establish South Central Minnesota Food Recovery. How did you get to that point?
A: On Memorial Day weekend in 2019, there was a lot going on — the holiday weekend, my birthday, a busy Friday — when I got a call from a key partner at Mankato Youth Place saying they had three pallets of raw chicken that were going in the garbage if we didn't take them. Our staff and volunteers spent several days cooking and freezing the chicken for future use, and the experience helped merge my vision between law and food systems into the practical application of what I was talking about. Then two years ago we got an infrastructure [freezers and refrigeration] grant from MPCA because we were determined to save as much as we could and get it to community members who needed it. When Wooden Spoon was back full throttle last summer, we put together a board and formed the nonprofit in February because we needed more structure around that recovery work. We're committed to being something bigger than just a restaurant; being mission-driven is embedded in the fabric of who we are.
Q: And Wooden Spoon involves a lot of women!
A: Letting women lead is very intentional. It has to be, because we're all swimming in white supremacy and patriarchy. In order to fight against the current, you have to intentionally strive to go the other way. It hasn't been easy and it doesn't always work, but as a white woman lawyer who is a business and building owner, I do what I can to challenge those systems and support other women in my community.
Q: Including in Old Town Mankato, right? You've helped lead the Old Town Association.
A: Old Town is in my blood, and its resurgence is due in part to the fact that so many of the current building and small-business owners are women who are reinvesting here. And Old Town's historical context — we are so close to the site where the 38+2 Dakota people were hanged in 1862 — provides an important way to frame the work I and this community are doing. Old Town is about healing and reconciliation, and we are creating a space here that is welcoming and that allows people to be who they are. We aren't doing this for public recognition; it's simply the right thing to do.
Q: Tell us about your other business, Seeds 2 Roots.
A: Yes, that's an effort to improve policies that will benefit greater community health. For instance, getting hospitals to embed certain nutrition standards on-site. I bring the theme of food justice into our contracts and the work we do to build a more just, sustainable food system that considers equity, environment and community voices.
Q: How do you juggle everything?
A: First and foremost, as an alcoholic in recovery, I'm grounded in my recovery program. Without that, I couldn't do all the other things. Amazing, supportive people who surround me let me be my true, authentic self and help me problem-solve. The work I'm doing towards social justice fuels my personal journey. As the world around us unravels, being able to do tangible good at the community level feeds my soul.