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Access to good food: The problem is getting worse

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Lorna Schmidt
The recent tragic fire that destroyed Zup’s, the only grocery store in Cook, should serve as a reminder for all Minnesotans just how vulnerable some segments of our state are when it comes to accessing healthy food. The loss of the Iron Range store leaves Cook and surrounding communities without easy access to a place to buy good food until the store is eventually rebuilt.

People living in the Cook area now join more than 235,000 Minnesotans who live more than 10 miles away from a large grocery store or supermarket. These so-called “food deserts” exist in all regions of the state but are especially prevalent in Greater Minnesota.

Access to good food is a problem that is getting worse. Unlike the case with Zup’s, for many grocery store owners the margin often isn’t large enough to rebuild when fire strikes or a building or store equipment needs significant updating. A staggering 53 out of 87 Minnesota counties experienced a loss in the number grocery stores per 1,000 residents between 2007 and 2012.

A contributor to poor health

We should all care about this problem because it not only affects those living in these communities — including many elderly who face transportation challenges — but also because it has significant impacts on the health of Minnesota. A lack of access to healthy and affordable food is a contributor to poor health, because the replacement foods that are commonly found at gas stations and convenience stores are high in fats, salt and calories, low in nutritional value, and are major contributors to heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Recognizing those challenges, a bipartisan group of Minnesota legislators passed legislation in 2016 that created the Minnesota Good Food Access Fund. The fund is designed to provide grants, loans and technical assistance to help small grocery stores, corner markets, farmers markets and other retailers provide healthy and affordable foods in locations that currently lack access to them. In 2017, the Legislature appropriated limited start-up funding for the program.

To say that the fund’s creation has been welcomed by grocery store owners and communities alike is an understatement. The response to requests for grant proposals from the fund has been overwhelming. In 2017, while 57 separate projects applied for funding, dollars were only available for eight. This year, more than 40 separate projects applied for funding, with requests totaling over $800,000. A total of only $233,000 in grants were awarded to 14 projects.

Economic benefits

The long-term benefits of the Good Food Access Fund go beyond health. Grocery stores and other healthy food outlets create jobs, serve as an outlet for locally grown foods, help revitalize communities, serve as retail anchors, and spur complementary economic development nearby. As the owner of Lamecker’s General Store in Kerkhoven, Minnesota, succinctly noted, “having a grocery store keeps people in town.” The Kerkhoven store received a Good Food Access Fund grant to purchase new, more efficient coolers to help, in part, with their home grocery delivery program for the community’s seniors.

If the upcoming Minnesota Legislature is looking for value-added programs to support and fund, increasing appropriations for the Good Food Access Fund is a good place to start. It benefits the health of Minnesotans, decreases the costs associated with poor health, helps support small communities and neighborhoods by preserving anchor businesses, sustains and creates jobs, and provides outlets for locally-grown foods. And as the last two years have demonstrated, the demand for program dollars is clear.

Lorna Schmidt is the Minnesota government relations director for the American Heart Association, the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization dedicated to building healthier lives free from heart disease — the leading cause of death in the United States. She is a resident of St. Paul.


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