Community Planning Unit Manager, Todd County Health & Human Services
Access to healthy and affordable food is not only an urban problem—it can also be a significant challenge for rural residents. Every day, individuals and families who live in rural regions face myriad challenges that put them at risk of missing meals, or simply not getting the nutrition they need to live healthy lives.
“Rural areas have several specific challenges when it comes to food access,” explained Katherine Mackedanz, Community Planning Unit Manager, Todd County Health and Human Services. “Those challenges are mainly due to geographic barriers and the combined loss of local grocery stores and community social networks.”
As Katherine sees it, food accessibility means creating ways for residents to obtain healthy foods year-round. “Food accessibility can be limited due to factors such as transportation, an individual’s income, and a person’s knowledge of the food system,” she added.
Through her work with Todd County Health and Human Services, she collaborates with local growers, schools, and healthcare systems—all of which have a great interest in promoting locally-grown foods.
“In my organization’s work with programs such as Choose Health and the Senior Fruit and Vegetable Program, I’ve witnessed the importance of providing direct access to healthy local foods to our most vulnerable populations,” Katherine said.
Fresh Produce for Seniors
In 2012, the Todd and Wadena County public health departments partnered with the Staples Area Farmers Market and the Wadena Area Growers Association to deliver bi-monthly produce bags with a variety of fresh and locally-grown items to low-income and homebound seniors. The Senior Fruit and Vegetable Program has since expanded. In 2014, the program delivered 3,000 pounds of produce to seniors in assisted living facilities and to Meals on Wheels participants.
“In the first year of the Senior Fruit and Vegetable Program, we had 43 participants; now we’re up to 76,” Katherine told us. “The program is expected to nearly double in size this year. Our evaluation results show that we’re making a difference. We’re seeing that participating seniors increased their daily consumption of fruits and vegetables by nearly a cup on average.”
Katherine is proud of the Senior Fruit and Vegetable Program, and says the effort has been a true partnership between local growers and public health staff. “I’ve seen how local growers have embraced the program and are extremely pleased that their food is serving homebound seniors who often have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” she added.
Not Just a Luxury Item
As Katherine has worked with low-income and at-risk populations, she’s come to realize that for some communities—buying healthy foods is often perceived as an unattainable luxury. But it doesn’t have to be.
By providing a wider variety of food sources in communities with few healthy food options—such as farmers markets, mobile markets, and community-supported agriculture delivery sites—Katherine and her team are reaching residents who truly need and want to eat healthier. And when that happens, the entire community benefits…or as Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.”