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Minnesota: An Agricultural State With Many Food Deserts
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Minnesota: An Agricultural State With Many Food Deserts

Grantmakers are uniting to support programs to close food access gaps across the state.

The results of a recently published study may seem especially confounding for an agricultural state: Nearly a third of Minnesotans are living in a “food desert.”

A “food desert” essentially means that people in poorer areas live far from a grocery store. Officially, it’s defined as a low-income census tract within which rural residents lack a grocery store within 10 miles of their homes, or urban residents have to travel more than a mile, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Minnesota is covered with these deserts, in both rural and urban areas. Wilder Research and the Federal Reserve Bank show in an April report that 1.6 million Minnesotans have low retail access to healthy food. That places Minnesota seventh from the worst among 50 states.

The Minnesota Food Funders Network (MFFN), a coalition of Minnesota grantmakers, is working to change these conditions, and to eliminate barriers that prevent low-income, rural and elderly Minnesotans from eating healthy food. Medical research has long documented the links between healthy eating and the occurrence of chronic and other diseases. Communities with limited food access also have lower health outcomes. Leading Minnesota companies in the health care sector, such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, are active in this work.

A key year for the evolution of MFFN was 2014, when the network helped bring about a series of public meetings and events involving several hundred Minnesotans, which resulted in the publication of the Minnesota Food Charter. The charter details 99 strategies for improving Minnesota’s food systems, particularly targeting the people most affected by lack of access to healthy foods. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, diet-related chronic diseases cost Minnesotans $2.8 billion annually. Hunger-Free Minnesota, a nonprofit food charity, puts the cost of hunger at $1.62 billion annually in preventable direct and indirect health and education expenses. The Minnesota Food Charter is an extensive document that details current conditions and charts a way forward. Contributors to the charter included groups spanning the social, environmental, economic and human health dimensions of food and agriculture, such as family, community and corporate foundations, state agencies, academic institutions, health-related organizations and hunger-relief groups.

A core aim of Food Charter advocates is to build “a culture of health” by investing in a more just and stronger food infrastructure. The charter’s 99 strategies are designed as a shared road map with many entry points, so that nonprofits, businesses, grantmakers, government and tribal agencies can find ways to connect with one or more of its strategies. Many grantmakers and businesses have done just that.

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MFFN, formed in 2011, is an important force behind developments like the Minnesota Food Charter and the new Wilder/Federal Reserve report on Healthy Food Access. Through MFFN, grantmakers with a common concern for hunger, health and health equity come together to learn and to align their funding, where appropriate. MFFN has grown. The network’s January meeting drew more than 100 Minnesota grantmakers to hear a keynote address by Dr. Dwayne Proctor of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and respondents from Minnesota. Proctor joined RWJF in 2002 and initially worked on childhood obesity. More recently he has spearheaded the foundation’s work around the “culture of health” and how it can be fostered.

Alison Babb of Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the network’s co-chair, says that MFFN is actively seeking members, and is open to funders, advocates and other stakeholders interested in hunger, health and health equity. In a recent member poll, network members determined their highest shared interests as supporting local food entrepreneurship, including farm-to-fork programs; expanding access to healthy food; and enhancing environmental health by supporting agricultural production systems that improve soil, air and water quality.

Pillsbury United Communities’ Community Cafes and Food Shelves, located in north Minneapolis, Cedar Riverside, and south Minneapolis neighborhoods, offer a strong example of a local grantee doing work in this sector, says network member Megan O’Meara of Greater Twin Cities United Way. These sites provide culturally appropriate, locally grown produce for area residents, and they include community gardening at food-shelf sites. Community gardening aims to help these residents “reclaim their relationship with food,” O’Meara says, “by incorporating a food justice framework that extends beyond simply addressing food insecurity to strengthening the community.”

Grantmakers with an interest in food and health are involved in diverse projects and welcome new members; the network members want to make a bigger difference, faster. If you join, you can expect invitations to attend MFFN workshops and briefings, and to create and participate in opportunities to share information, coordinate action and increase funding. The result would be the fulfillment of the network’s overarching goal: “The growth of interconnected and resilient food systems that nourish diverse communities and strengthen the culture, equity, well-being and economy of Minnesota for future generations.”

It’s ironic that, according to the state Department of Agriculture’s 2015 Profile, Minnesota is fifth among the 50 states in the total dollar volume of our agricultural economy. Heading out of the metro, you won’t go far before seeing farms dotting our rolling hillsides, and fields filled with corn and other crops. Let’s make that abundance translate to healthy food access for all who live here.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors.

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