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U study finds Minneapolis food law has done little to change consumer habits (so far)

Despite the increased availability of healthy foods, shopper surveys and home-food analyses showed there wasn’t an increase in people purchasing healthy foods in Minneapolis as a result of the ordinance.

While healthy food is now significantly more available in Minneapolis than it once was, healthy food purchases have not actually increased in the city over the last four years.
Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

Earlier this month, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to adopt changes to the staple foods ordinance, simplifying the city policy that requires nontraditional food stores such as corner stores, gas stations, pharmacies and dollar stores to stock a certain amount of healthy foods.

But that isn’t the only bit of news coming out of the law, which was the first policy of its kind in the country when it was adopted in 2008. Last month, after four years of work, a team from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health wrapped up gathering data on the effects of the law in the city.

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And while the U team will spend the next year analyzing the data, some findings are already clear — including the fact that while healthy food is now significantly more available in Minneapolis than it once was, healthy food purchases have not actually increased in the city over the last four years.

How the study was done

While Minneapolis has competing co-ops and large grocers, many neighborhoods lack a convenient full-service grocery store, leaving corner stores and gas-marts to fill in the gaps. Compared to full-service grocers, nontraditional food stores have fewer healthier options, and what they do have tends to be higher priced.

By requiring these smaller retailers to stock a certain amount of healthy foods across 10 categories like milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables and whole grains, the Minneapolis ordinance sought to increase the health of nontraditional stores’ frequent customers.

To study the law’s effect, researchers from the U of M, led by Dr. Melissa Laska, collected data from nontraditional food stores, starting with pre-ordinance data in 2014. “We did interviews with store managers and we interviewed over 3,000 people coming out of stores,” said Laska. “We did these customer intercept surveys and bag checks where just as customers who looked like they may have purchased something exited a store, we asked ‘Hey, can we talk to you for five minutes?��”

Customers were then asked why they had decided to shop at the store, how often they shopped there and how far they lived from the store. Their purchases were recorded for later nutritional analysis. Later, a smaller group of volunteers who reported living close to the store were visited by researchers to conduct a home-food analysis, in which the contents of their pantries and refrigerators were recorded and analyzed.               

The study’s primary findings show that healthy food availability in Minneapolis has improved significantly over the last several years. Even so, the difference between Minneapolis and St. Paul, which doesn’t have a similar ordinance and was used as a control in the study, is not significant. More notably, despite the increased availability of healthy foods, shopper surveys and home-food analyses showed no significant increase in people purchasing healthy foods in Minneapolis under the ordinance.

Changing supplies, not behavior

One factor in the data is a lack of compliance. While the health department determined that overall, full compliance among the city’s 242 licensed grocery stores was 38 percent, the U team’s study found that only 10 percent of nontraditional grocers were fully compliant.

“It’s difficult for me to say that we have the definitive answer on the impact that the policy has on customers when so few stores are fully compliant,” said Laska.

Compliance with the ordinance is not the only metric for determining the healthiness of a store’s stock, however, and the changes recently passed by the City Council are aimed at making it easier for stores to comply without lowering nutritional standards. Before the recent changes, dried beans and canned beans were in separate categories; now they are in one. The amendments also increase the number of frozen fruits and vegetables that can be sold and still count under the law.

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If customers aren’t buying healthy foods, however, compliance with the ordinance doesn’t mean much. And changing shopping habits requires more than just putting healthy foods on shelves. “I don’t know that we were all that surprised that the purchasing data hadn’t moved significantly at this point,” said Klingler. “I think behavior change takes quite a bit of time, and the ordinance was really designed to get the supply into stores.”

As nontraditional grocers continue to stock healthier options, the hope is that customers will come to think of these stores as reliable places to purchase their food, says Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant. When shoppers walk by nontraditional grocery stores, she wants them to start thinking, “’Oh yeah, let’s stop at the corner store because we know that we can always get peppers there or we can always get onions there.’”

Cost is another factor, of course, as prices impact both a store’s ability to comply and consumer demand. And while the city can require stores to stock a certain amount of healthy foods, it can’t dictate the price, and small retailers don’t get the wholesale discounts supermarkets do, making healthy foods more expensive for the people who shop there.

While the U team is done collecting data, efforts to analyze it will continue for at least another year. The goal is to try to answer several different questions, such as: what factors affect compliance; what store owners think about food policy; and what do frequent shoppers look for in nontraditional food stores?

Meanwhile, the health department is in the early stages of developing financial incentives for customers looking to improve the healthiness of their purchases. “We’re not going to be able to implement the staple foods ordinance and prevent cancer or obesity or whatever outcomes you’re looking at,” said Laska. “But collectively, if we can work on enough fronts to create healthier environments across the board — where healthier choices easier to make and people are supported when they want to make healthier choices — then maybe we’ll be able to see some real kind of systems-level shift in what’s happening.”