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Jan. 20 is National Cheese Lover’s Day, so whether you slap it on a cracker, eat it on a piping hot piece of pizza or sweet, tender danish, or top a nice juicy burger with your favorite slice, it’s almost time to celebrate our eastern neighbor’s favorite food group. Yum!

Battle with eating disorder spurs album meant to inspire
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Robby Swenson was in a downward spiral.

The then-Northfield High School junior was battling anorexia, an eating disorder that caused him to lose 30 pounds. The condition left him physically weak, constantly hungry, and in search of an elusive sense of self-esteem that, no matter how hard he tried, seemed to evade his grasp.

As his condition worsened and those around him began to grow concerned for his well-being, Swenson started to climb out of the depths of the disorder through therapy and the development of positive self-talk and is now a senior with goals of entering the world of music.

The lessons Swenson learned during the grueling 12-month stretch are included in an album he released Jan. 15, “Anorexia,” and are intended to help others who might be struggling from anorexia and other eating disorders.

A tough year

As a freshman and sophomore, Swenson saw older students who were writing their own music and taking advanced classes. He was never much into sports and instead sought fulfillment through theater and music. Those differences made him doubt his physical conditioning and worsened his preexisting uncertainty in his own looks and abilities.

“I’ve always been insecure,” he said.

By the end of his sophomore year, Swenson started running to assuage those insecurities. He also changed his diet, not out of a desire to improve his health but to ensure that he was thin enough to be accepted. The changes, considered hallmark early warning signs of an eating disorder, only worsened. He would sometimes go to bed hungry. At one point, at 6 feet, 1 inches tall he only weighed 160 pounds.

As his physical condition worsened, his mother said she was concerned that he would die if he continued to starve himself. Still, the compulsive regulation of his caloric intake continued, resulting in ongoing torment he attributes partially to TV commercials showing people who are in extraordinary physical condition and offering similar results for people who subscribe to those lifestyles.

Better days

Still in the midst of his eating disorder, Swenson began to realize the toll anorexia had taken on others who suffered from the condition by seeing pictures of people close to death, images that were “very terrifying” to the teenager.

Swenson spoke with representatives of The Emily Program, a nationally recognized organization serving people with eating disorders. They told him he needed to change his habits, including eating more to become healthy — the opposite approach he had taken when he was suffering from anorexia.

“That was really interesting,” he said.

That advice made Swenson realize that he had to do what he had previously feared most: Gain weight and ease the control he had previously placed on himself by severely restricting his food intake. Gaining that awareness made him remember what life was like before the onset of the eating disorder, his passion for making music and participation in choir. Soon, Swenson developed a different habit, one that included self-acceptance and positive self-talk. However, he acknowledged that cycle can be tough to break because anorexics tend to believe they can accomplish their goals only if they continue losing weight.

Writing the album

As his life improved, Swenson began to understand the scope of what he had been through and wanted to help people who are suffering from anorexia. He had never seen personal accounts of the condition prior to his experience with the eating disorder and noticed a societal reluctance to discuss the topic. That realization sparked his interest in writing his second album while helping people overcome the debilitating impacts of anorexia.

The album’s progression is intended to serve as a progression through his ordeal. It starts with a reference to unfairness, a comparison between his experience with the eating disorder and being in a jail cell and trying to lose enough weight to fit through the bars. The first eight or nine songs are intended to be hard-hitting, to show listeners the toll anorexia plays on those suffering from the disorder. The album’s message then includes the realization that Swenson can remove himself from the jail by climbing over the bars instead of trying to starve himself to make it through. One track includes a female voice, Swenson’s friend Ella Andrew.

The album is available on Spotify, Apple Music and on other major music streaming platforms. It’s free on SoundCloud. Swanson advises anyone interesting in giving it a listen to search “Robby Swenson” when looking for his work on streaming platforms.

Paying it forward

Swenson is not approaching the album as a money-making endeavor. Instead, he wants it to open listeners’ minds to a message of self-love and acceptance. He wants them to look inside themselves and understand that the compulsive behavior eating disorders entail never improves the underlying insecurity, despite the deceptive sense of immediate promise the regimentation offers.

Meg Tomonari, Swenson’s friend and the album cover’s designer, noted its colors were chosen based on what she imagined while listening to the album. The heart within the skeleton is intended to show a stream of consciousness, while the skeleton is intended to reflect the self-feeling of the person suffering. She considers “Anorexia” to have a mix of upbeat and relaxed beats. Tomonari, who has also struggled with a positive body image during high school, said her friend’s work was effective.

“It really does kind of show that opposite effect of having an eating disorder,” she said.

Northfield High School senior Ella Andrew, who also collaborated with Swenson on three songs, said she’s “really excited to see the finished product.” Both Andrew and Swenson write music, and Swenson approached her with the idea.

“We’ve had a collaborative relationship in terms of music for a while,” Andrew said.

“I’m really glad he reached out. It’s a really personal project.”

Swenson intends to attend a small liberal arts school in the area and is considering a career as either a choir director or music producer. He finds joy in producing music. His musical inspirations include Tyler the Creator, rap artists Kendrick Lamar and N.W.A, and bands like Origami Angel.

“It’s just such a communal thing,” he said.

Bridgewater looks to develop township's southwest corner
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After years of talks with potential stakeholders, Bridgewater Township could finally be moving ahead with plans to bring in an industry to the coveted I-35 corridor.

Bridgewater’s five-member Board of Supervisors discussed rezoning the southwest corner of the township at its Wednesday meeting, at what is likely to be the first of several meetings regarding the topic.

Although Bridgewater is the only township in Rice County to have its own zoning board, it will still have to work with the county to get the area designated for industrial use. In the meantime, the township will need to identify proposed zoning boundaries and consult the public.

While a specific area has not yet been identified for the development, area landowners have been approached by several interested developers, and recent talks with one in particular suggest that if the area is rezoned, potential development could move along quickly.

Though Bridgewater’s Comprehensive Plan has long prioritized agriculture, its focus includes sustainable residential and business development as well. Due to its proximity to I-35, western Bridgewater has been cited as a potential area for industrial development.

Glen Castore, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said that the southwest portion of the township makes particular sense for business development because much of the area, which is home to a gravel pit, is seen as marginal for farming and has a railroad running through it.

Rice County has also made significant investments in the area in hopes of bringing in businesses. So long as easy access to I-35 is available, the location provides appealing proximity to the Twin Cities and especially Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. A crucial piece of that investment was slated to begin last year, but is instead expected to proceed this year. Baseline Road/County Road 76, which runs along the township’s western boundary and serves as a frontage road to I-35, will be upgraded from gravel to pavement.

“The fact that Baseline is being upgraded makes quite a difference,” Castore said.

The project will be a two year investment, with the foundation laid in year one and pavement coming in year two. However, several landowners refused to cede their land, pushing the county to court to seek eminent domain.

The roughly $5 million project was then brought to a halt because the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though the construction itself wouldn’t have been impacted by COVID, court shutdowns caused a case backlog long enough to close the door on construction in 2020.

The project is important to any potential development in southwest Bridgewater because when it’s complete, trucks would be able to complete the trip from southwest Bridgewater up to County Road 1, then onto I-35 and the Twin Cities, on paved roadways.

Castore said that the “expectation” that there will be an interchange at County Road 9 is one factor encouraging development there — even though stakeholders are well aware that the interchange isn’t likely to be built for years.

The area is within a half-mile of Met-Con’s Faribault facility, which comprises the northern tip of current city limits. Yet despite that proximity to Faribault’s city limits, the Township Board has told potential developers that hooking up to city water and sewer is not likely to be feasible.

Though city officials have so far declined to explore potential development north of County Road 9, they have long backed an interchange at County Road 9 and I-35 as a way to make the interstate more accessible to the city’s businesses, especially those located in the north industrial park.

Faribault City Administrator Tim Murray has also noted that a potential interchange would also ease traffic issues at the city’s busiest intersection. In 2018, the interchange at I-35 and Hwy. 21 was traveled by 14,000 vehicles per day, and that number has continued to rise.

If the interchange is built, it would only come after years of lobbying and millions in funding, pushing the likely completion date at least a decade and a half out. In order to secure state funding, the project would need robust backing from both the city and county.

While continuing to support the interchange project, Faribault city staff have turned their attention away from developing the area, citing wetlands, steep hills, utilities and other “encumbrances,” instead prioritizing development near the intersection of I-35 and Hwy. 60 on the southwest side of town.

Pilot program opens COVID vaccines to 65-plus, educators, but they're hard to come by

Starting Thursday, a new vaccine pilot program will begin distributing the COVID-19 vaccines to adults 65 years of age or older, but not at the rate the governor says Minnesota needs.

According to Gov. Tim Walz, Minnesota has received about 60,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine per week and he anticipates that it will remain at that level into February. This week, however, Minnesota is launching a new program that will start offering the vaccine to those in the next phase in nine pilot sites, but only 12,000 of the doses the state received will be allocated to the program.

“The problem is we have millions of Minnesotans ready to be vaccinated and sites with only hundreds of doses,” Walz said during a press conference on Monday. “Until the federal government steps up with a clear plan, this is what we have to work with.”

Steele County is one of the areas receiving very limited doses each week, with Public Health Director Amy Caron saying some weeks they receive zero.

“At this time we simply don’t have the vaccine to get to that next group yet,” Caron said, adding the most doses Steele County Public Health receives in one week is about 200. “We’re still trying to work through Phase 1a and we are rolling out the vaccine as fast as we are getting it. We’re not sitting on any.”

While Owatonna Hospital and Mayo Clinic Health System receive doses directly to vaccinate their staff, Caron said Public Health’s role has been to help with long-term care facilities and group homes administering the vaccine, part of the priority one and two of Phase 1. She said they just started working on the third priority, which includes school nurses, dental and eye care providers, home care agencies, funeral directors and other healthcare staff unable to telework.

Rice County Public Health is also working on the third priority in the first phase, adding that most individuals in the first and second priority groups in Rice County have had their vaccinations completed.

“Minnesota Department of Health recently announced more flexibility as doses become available, including offering vaccinations for those over 65 years of age,” Rice County Public Health wrote in a news release. “Rice County Public Health currently does not have doses available for individuals 65 years and older. Once we have vaccines available, we will inform the public through public announcements and media channels.”

As of Monday, Rice County Public Health has received a total of 500 doses for the first vaccinations, all of which have been administered.

Caron said local public health departments, health care providers such as hospitals and clinics, and the new vaccine pilot program will all play a part in administering vaccinations to the 65-plus population. Until more vaccines are available, however, they cannot pick up the pace any faster than the rate they’ve been moving.

“We know people are anxious to get their vaccine, and it’s great that people are so interested in getting it,” Caron said. “We wish we had the amount of vaccine that we need right now, but we don’t. It will come – we just have to be patient.”

Walz expressed his frustration with the rate at which the federal government is sending out COVID-19 vaccines to individual states, sending out a letter along with other governors regarding the “botched” distribution and urging the federal government to purchase as many doses as possible.

“Pfizer has millions of vaccines available and they just need them to be purchased,” Walz said. “Incoming president-elect Joe Biden has said COVID-19 and the vaccine is the number one priority for his administration … we are taking them at their word.”

Walz said based on the promise to distribute 100 million vaccines in the first 100 days Biden is in office, the state can estimate roughly 2 million vaccines will be allocated to Minnesota. He said he is optimistic that if that happens, they will be able to work through this new tier within the first 90 days.

If that is not the case, though, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm estimates it will take 4½ months at the current rate vaccines are being received.

While appointments at the pilot sites will open for scheduling online and over the phone at noon on Tuesday, they are specifically targeting the 65-plus population. Educators and child care workers will receive information about signing up for an appointment from their employer, according to Malcolm.

School districts across the state were informed Monday on the number of vaccines they are currently allocated based on population. The Owatonna school district is being allocated 12 doses, while the Faribault school district will receive 10. Walz said it is important to prioritize educators as getting students back in the classroom is of vital concern, but once again they can only work with what the federal government is distributing to the state. State officials have recommended that schools prioritize their vaccine allotment due to the limited supplies.

“Beginning to vaccinate educators, including all school staff, as well as our partners in the childcare industry through the pilot sites is exciting,” said Deputy Education Commissioner Heather Mueller. “While we do not have enough doses for everyone who wants a vaccine to receive one right away, we are building the system and structure so that once we receive those additional doses from the federal government, we can move quickly to support our school staff and bring even more students back into our classrooms.”

According to the Governor’s Office, child care programs are randomly selected and will be notified if vaccines are available.

While the closest pilot sites to the area are in North Mankato and Rochester, Caron said it is still a good idea for those who qualify for the new program to try to make an appointment to receive the vaccine at either location.

Neither Steele County nor Rice County Public Health departments are keeping a waitlist for the COVID-19 vaccine.