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Minnesota Among Worst States for Food Deserts

Everyday, Miss Tanya prepares her preschoolers for lunch. The soon to be kindergartners set their lunch tables and serve their own food. At New Horizon in Apple Valley, healthy eating is taught at a early age. "They are taught as early as infants, to preschool," explains Desiree Culhane, the Director of the childcare center. She says they kick off their Farm to School program every summer. "Basically we try to highlight a certain type of food, either a vegetable or a fruit for the first couple weeks and we'll use it in different ways. We might have cut up strawberries with breakfast, we might paint with strawberries for an art project, we might do a berry tasting. We try to develop and teach children a different way of using their food in fun ways."

But in an agricultural state, the access to fresh and healthy food is far from abundant.

Miah knows this to be true. "Something that I've seen here on the Northside that is similar in someways but more dense, is that people do have to walk and they do have to bus to get to many places." Growing up, Miah and her family moved often. Many times, they found themselves living in a food desert, or what some call a food swamp, where accessibility to healthy food is limited. "It was really interesting to live in cities like Brooklyn Center or Brooklyn Park or even Champlin where if there was a grocery store, it was just one grocery store. Either Festival Food or it was Cub Foods and that was it. And for the suburban life, you'd think, oh that's an amazing life, there's plenty of access, the average, median income is really high, but when you are living in a suburb, your car is broken down, absolutely no money. The bus system isn't as fluid as you might see in the Twin Cities, you're either having to walk, which we have done, or bike or find a way to get to the grocery store to spend the $3 or $4 that you found hanging around in your house."

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and Wilder Research, Minnesota ranks 7th worst state in the nation with no groceries close to their homes. Hundreds of thousands of Minnesota's live in areas where they have bounded or no access to fresh, healthy food. "More and more people are interested in eating healthy foods, but not everyone has the same access to healthy food in their neighborhood," says Kristen Klingler, the Senior Public Health Specialist at the Minnesota Health Department. She worked to increase the affordability and accessibility of healthy food in small food retail stores. One being, Eastside Co-Op in Northeast Minneapolis. "I think places like the co-op are critical as food sources within the neighborhood, people need places that is easy to access that's affordable, that has a lot of variety and the co-op provides those things to the neighborhood."

The neighborhood Co-Op opened its doors in 2003. In a community with very few grocery store nearby, Eastside Food Co-Op is dedicated to providing natural, organic food.

Kristen's efforts led to the passage of Staple Food Ordinance for the city , which requires places like gas stations, corner stores, pharmacies, dollar stores to shelve certain amount of nutritious foods. "As a result of the Staple Food Ordinance, there's a minimum amount of healthy foods that are now available in all types of what we call, license grocery stores. That can be anything from a full-service grocery store to a corner store or a gas station or a pharmacy. So we've been able to raise the minimum stocking requirements for these stores."

Stores across the city are required to stock foods such as fruits and vegetables and whole grain products. Adam, one of the founders of Brightside Produce works with over 30 corner stores across the city to help supply them with fresh produce in order to comply with the Staple Food Ordinance. "A lot of these wholesale places have a $150 order minimum and if you're a corner store, I'm sure you can imagine how hard it would be to sell $150 worth of produce within a week, a week and a half before it starts going bad. It's almost impossible for these corner store owners. So, Brightside, where we play our role, we actually go to these places and we get cases of fruits and vegetables. And what we'll do is take that to the stores and we'll make a show box that will have one of everything we have."

Using food as tool for health and social change

Across the plain fields of Minnesota, you'll find farm land, plenty of farm land,- many in rural parts of the state.

But that's not the only place in you'll find a farm in Minnesota. "I've been growing food in my backyard since I was a little kid," says Daryl, who oversees the community based St. Olaf urban farm site in North Minneapolis. "I don't often agree with the way Northside is described. I definitely believe there is plenty of access here. I think what's lacking is the knowledge about food and how to access food, how to grow your own food."

In a community with nearly 70,000 people, North Minneapolis has only two grocery stores, but an abundant amount of fast food restaurants and corner stores. The St. Olaf farm site shares it's garden with various Northside organizations working to provide the community with fresh produce.

Remember Miah? She is now the Northside Fresh Coordinator and Policy Manager who works with local organizations, like Appetite for Change. "This is probably the most cooperative community led site on the Northside where you literally have different businesses and organizations all working together, growing together," says Miah.

Appetite for Change plays a key role in the cooperative movement on the Northside, using food as a vehicle for social change. Urban agriculture is one of their core efforts where young people of the Northside volunteer to help grow and distribute fresh produce to their community. By gardening as a community, Appetite for Change has a created a sustainable food system in the Northside. In the last few years, they've produced nearly 120,000 pounds of produce by 10 farmers on 13 sites in North Minneapolis.

"Here at Appetite for Change, we like to get people at the table, not just on the menu. So working as a community is really important. Everybody don't like to be involved and stuff, so just getting them out there and have their voice heard. Because a lot of times our voices is the one that's getting put down," says Taijah, a volunteer with Appetite for Change.

So to get their message out, a group of young Minneapolis kids made a music video about farming called Grow Food, to encourage the community to be more active about their food source. "The Grow Food video was a way for us to get out the news about growing healthy food and eating heathy" says Princess Ann, the daughter of Princess-Titus, co-founder of Appetite for Change.

The fresh produce grown on the urban farms are distributed to places like corner stores and restaurants in North Minneapolis. "Appetite for Change, because of the facility that they have with their cafe and Kindered Kitchen, where we can take the food, aggregate it, clean it, bundle it so that we can then provide it to both the cafes, corner stores and other vendors."

North Market

Eastside Food Co-Op has been providing fresh, healthy food in Northeast Minneapolis since 2003. And now a nearby community plans to do the same.

The North Market, a full-service grocery store is expected to open this fall. It will be the first full-service grocery store in North Minneapolis to open in more than ten years. "We know grocery stores tend to be the hub of the community," says Vanan, Pillsbury United Communities Director of Design and Innovation. "Our long-term goal is to see that thing happening."

North Market will be unlike any standard grocery. Along with it's offering of fresh produce, the anticipated grocery store will have a wellness center, offer cooking classes and heath services. But most importantly, it will create jobs for the community. "We will be hiring people who live in the area and so the store will have that feel, that this feels right, this feels like North Minneapolis," explains Vanan.

The North Market Project has been underway for more than two and a half years, receiving grants through programs like Good Food Access. Run by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Good Food Access assists grocery stores and small food retailers with loans, grants and technical assistance to help existing or new ventures provide healthy and affordable foods. "North Market is a great example, first of having community engagement for a significant period of time to understand what type of a grocery store people wanted to see. And beyond just a store, what other services would make it feel a part of the community." says, Leah Gardner, Good Food Access' campaign manager.

With much anticipation, North Market is expected to open it's doors this coming November.