Papaya and persimmons may not be familiar foods for some South Dakotans, but thanks to the expansion of the Bountiful Baskets co-op, preparing exotic fruit could one day be as common as shucking a cob of corn.

Well, perhaps not that common. But since the inception of the Bountiful Baskets Food Co-op in 2006, 28 towns in South Dakota are now enjoying an assortment of fresh produce on a biweekly basis. The co-op originally began with a couple sites in Arizona, and has blossomed into hundreds of locations in 20 states.

This past summer the Bountiful Baskets program, which exchanges monetary donations for large baskets of fruits and veggies, was brought to Pierre and Fort Pierre, where its popularity has skyrocketed.

Lori Norman, a volunteer who helps distribute baskets in Hayes, said that the Pierre area sells out so fast that Pierre and Fort Pierre residents often venture out to Hayes to pick up a basket.

The small community of Hayes was added as a Bountiful Basket location in October after volunteers Lori Norman, Lura Kirkpatrick and Lisa Neuharth had attended three training sessions in nearby communities. Norman first heard about the co-op through her daughter in Spearfish and said that they were excited to nab an open spot on the route of a Bountiful Basket produce truck.

The Hayes volunteers have noticed an abundance of interest in the variety of fresh produce and have distributed over 60 baskets each pickup day.

“The produce is so fresh, and we’re trying new things,” Norman said. “When it’s 60 miles to the grocery store, you tend to buy very basic things.”

With additional themed veggie packs, such as Italian, Mexican, and Asian veggies, and pounds of potentially unfamiliar produce, the baskets are much more than ‘basic’ food.

Utilizing social media and blogs, Norman and many other participants have discovered and exchanged recipes and tips for preparing the sometimes foreign fruits and vegetables. After this week’s pickup, Facebook pages were filled with persimmon recipes and ripeness information — helpful, since a ripe persimmon somewhat resembles a bruised tomato.

Norman has also been experimenting with canning and dehydrating produce. She found that dehydrated cucumbers, for example, make great chips or can be made into dips when powdered.

Regardless of the early 7 a.m. pick-up time in Hayes, Norman has noticed that community members are enjoying their early morning jaunt.

“It’s a community gathering type thing, where you get to visit with neighbors you might not see otherwise, and you get to meet new people,” she said.

Norman drives 25 miles south to Hayes every other Saturday, arriving at the community hall promptly at 6 a.m. to volunteer, and she hopes that others will continue to do the same. Participants are encouraged to volunteer every six to seven baskets they receive, and there are jobs for everyone, Norman added.

Besides Pierre, Fort Pierre and Hayes, other central Bountiful Baskets locations include Murdo, Faith and Dupree. Norman said that while most locations are currently in the western half of the state, more distribution sites east of the river will most likely begin popping up in January, thanks to additional trucks.

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