Rooted: Connecting the Dots with Rachel Sandhorst

by Cerrisa Snethen, Volunteer Member Coordinatordots

Something about sitting down with Rachel Sandhorst to write a “Rooted” article makes you think even more heavily than usual about things that grow. Perhaps it’s Rachel’s passion: environmental psychology, biology, and all other things oligy. Perhaps it’s the contagious way she speaks of a love of the outdoors. Like so many of us, Rachel is a Decorah transplant. What is it about this community and place that draw so many of us here? It’s nearly impossible to quantify. And then you sit down on a blustery February afternoon with someone like Rachel Sandhorst, and you remember– while the landscape may be beautiful, it’s the people. As Rachel spoke about the human “richness” of Decorah, I couldn’t help but be grateful that she and her fantastic family add exponentially to its wealth. Living amidst a larger modern culture that is increasingly compartmentalized, specialized, and polarized, we often long for more folks who are connecting the dots. Not only is Rachel connecting them, she’s leading children to do the same, and the number of dots in her life that intersect with her values and the Co-op, are many.

Quintessentially midwestern, Rachel grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, a place still dear to her heart. Her family food culture was one made largely from scratch, but Rachel’s mother was ahead of her time in her willingness to try new things and get creative in the kitchen. She still remembers when, at sixteen, her father travelled to Morocco (inflicting on her the excruciating pain of having to wait until he returned home, to finally get her driver’s license). How did Dad totally redeem himself? Couscous! And Rachel had a mama willing to work with this new strange and sassy semolina. New spices and smells swirled through the Sandhorst kitchen. Rachel learned early that creativity and do-it-yourself-edness often result in a beautiful marriage. She remembers when her mother first subscribed to “Cooking Light” magazine, “Well, it wasn’t necessarily about cooking light,” she emphasized, “But the ideas– getting ideas & trying new things.”

The Sandhorsts instilled in Rachel a strong ethic of helping others through challenging times. Her folks challenged Rachel in other ways too– like when they told her that they would help her through college by paying her room and board… which meant she could stay local, continue sleeping in her bedroom, and eating dinner at their place every night, while paying her own way And while she may have felt some urging toward a more constant campus life, Rachel’s grateful: “I got to spend more time with my then three year old sister,” she sighed “And because of it I only graduated college two thousand dollars in debt.” Talk about learning responsibility through love and logic.

Rachel’s road to Decorah is a turning and twisty one, but after paying her inevitable American food service employment dues, and letting an “Americorps” stint lead her to build homes for migrant farmers, build trails in Maine, and help low income elderly housing communities with their taxes, graduate school beckoned. It was in Boulder that Rachel earned her masters in Curriculum and Instruction and met her husband Jon Jensen. And here’s our serendipitous Decorah moment ladies and gentleman: Jon was a Luther grad. Ta da! Want to know how modern a love story this is? Rachel’s first attempt to hang out with Jon non-professionally? E-mail.

After a year in Vermont, whose scenic views, progressive ideals, and community spirit Rachel just “loved, loved, loved,” she and Jon landed in Decorah where Jon began teaching at his alma mater. Longing at first for her Vermont community and closer proximity to family, the Co-op helped fill the void for her. It was her first day in Decorah that Rachel came down and bought her Co-op membership. Why? Well, Rachel’s general philosophy on food goes something like this: “Good food should be affordable to everyone. In our household we sort of love Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: ‘Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.’ We grow and raise a lot of our food and try to eat close to home. That said, I have to admit– I love Middle Eastern spices! I’m less about ‘eat to live’ and more about ‘live to eat’. And as a family, we share our meals together. That’s important.” Overwhelmingly, it seems that Rachel’s food philosophy is about gratitude, sharing, and staying humble.

She shops the Co-op because she realizes that though it may be an inconvenient and difficult fact, we often forget to take into account the externalized cost of the food we buy. “There are so many factors involved in what we eat. It’s about the land. It’s about the farmer.” She shakes her head: “We should subsidize healthy fresh local food instead of corn syrup.”

While Rachel does most of the Co-op runs, she and Jon do their once a month “big shop” together. “We mostly shop the perimeter,” she tells me, citing the lower cost and generally higher nutrient content. “We’re BIG bulk shoppers. We don’t buy a lot of packaged snack foods at my house. If we’re snacking, it’s something like popcorn, fruit, or toast. We like bulk because we really do try and stay within a budget, which means… I don’t buy as many chips as I’d like to! We’re just tickled by the things that we can buy in bulk– nuts, dried fruits, chocolate chips– and it’s a lot less packaging.” Rachel and Company buy oatmeal and seven grain cereal instead of their packaged, more expensive counterparts. Other super sustainable ways Rachel and Jon save dough? They harvest eggs from their own chickens, and freeze and can their garden. And the family’s cache of homemade goodness also serves as holiday gifts. Their girls, Sylvia and Lily, learn infinite skills and lessons helping Mom and Dad can pickles, sun dried tomatoes, apple butter, and red raspberry vinegar.

Rachel takes joy in knowing that her girls will grow up rooted in the store. “It’s so cool my girls will grow up having memories of being at the Co-op– not just shopping here, but meeting friends, having a quick lunch when we’re in town, and learning things too. They’re just now really discovering that with money you can actually buy things.” While money had been a seemingly abstract idea to the girls before, Rachel witnessed them very recently spending 45 minutes working together to budget their funds and decide what to buy and share from the Co-op shelves. She’s glad the Co-op exists as a “safe place for them to be. And we always know there will be someone we know, for us to greet, whether an employee or a friend.”

While the Sandhorst girls love their Co-op, daughter Sylvia has a unique and charming set of priorities. As Rachel drove her girls recently to the People’s Co-op in Lacrosse, she exclaimed to her girls, “Look, they even have a yoga studio here! Right across the street from the co-op!” to which Sylvia replied matter-of-factly, “Yeah, but every town should have a yoga studio– you can always just forage for your own food.” When Sylvia’s not foraging her Mom thinks that she and sister Lily most love the Co-op’s candy section and our new popular Noosa yogurt. Rachel’s favorite Co-op guilty pleasure? “Probably the salt and vinegar Kettle Chips,” she chuckles, “I mean, let’s be honest, right?”

Guilty pleasures aside, the learning-centered household Rachel and Jon maintain spirals outward. She talks a lot about the need to change people’s mindsets. “We need to help people realize that food is something worth paying for. And we should share more of our meals together whether it’s with family or with friends… and without texting,” she smiles. “It’s about bringing people together. I want to eliminate the stigma that the Co-op is elite or exclusive, or that you have to be rich to shop here. Look at me!” she exclaims, “All of my clothes are second hand… except the scarf… I made the scarf.” There’s that DIY spirit again.

So there you have it. As Rachel helps connect Decorah’s pieces and people, you’ll likely see her trying to encourage healthy families by coaxing folks outside. While she teaches outdoor education at Luther in the summer and helps the DNR outdoor education department, she really wants to branch out. “Living in Decorah we’re lucky. We’re so rich with trails and possibility for outdoor activity. And it’s good for all of us– young or old. I think it helps you in every possible way– emotionally, physically, spiritually, even intellectually, so I would encourage people to do that.” Her dream is to join together families for group activities like hiking. “You don’t have to know the names of trees to take your kids outside. Just go out and enjoy it.” And perhaps after enjoying it, you can swing by and see us here at the store. Rachel’s final advice for us? “Try and find the joy in cooking. It can be such a motivator to cook and eat better food. There’s so much more to your food than you think– look at the wider circle around it.”

Ah, the wider circle! Just the final dot I was looking for. Thanks Rachel. We’ll look forward to connecting with you again, the next time we see you in the aisles.