Mary Jo Forbord
Coordinator, Morris Healthy Eating, University of Minnesota, Morris
Americans living in rural areas are four times more likely to lack access to a healthy food retailer than those who live in urban areas, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the small southwestern town of Morris, Minnesota, community members and university students have banded together to fix that through Morris Healthy Eating—a University of Minnesota-based organization that works to make healthy foods more affordable and more accessible to people throughout Stevens County. Led by Mary Jo Forbord, registered dietician and certified organic farmer, the group has brought in new vendors to the Morris Area Farmers Market, partnered with several organizations and worked with university students to grow their own food—all to help create a stronger base of healthy foods for the region’s residents.
“We want to make healthy foods accessible and affordable to everyone in our community, regardless of income, age or where they live,” Mary Jo said.
Looking Beyond the Grocery Store Shelves
Mary Jo became aware of food systems work during the 1980s farm crisis, when she saw firsthand how the farm crisis caused many farmers to lose their land and go out of business. “At first glance, my education and career as a nutritionist didn’t seem connected to the losses those farmers were experiencing, nor to the crops they were producing, their production methods, or even to government farm policies more broadly,” she explained.
Now, Mary Jo knows that healthy soil, clean water, and a diverse array of local crops grown by local farmers are prerequisites to healthy eating and food security. “Over the course of my career, I have focused my efforts further ‘upstream’ beyond the grocery store shelves and what’s listed on a restaurant menu,” she told us.
For instance, her personal family farming practices have transitioned to organic and perennial crops, and her family has adopted more of a local and organically-grown diet. “Native American cultures have inspired me to think about the implications of our actions seven generations into the future,” she told us. “I try to link food, agriculture, and health together in everything that I do, both personally and professionally.”
Building a Vibrant Market
Through her work with Morris Healthy Eating, Mary Jo is most proud of growing the Morris Area Farmers Market—which has helped her rural community build relationships with local farmers, gardeners, and food artisans.
“The food that’s sold at the market is fresh, in season, and is grown locally,” Mary Jo explained. “By organizing and building a welcoming and vibrant market, we have succeeded in encouraging more farmers to become vendors and more community members to become customers, all of which strengthens the local economy. Great food, music, free kids’ activities, and lots of community interaction enhances our rural culture. The market is our ‘town square’ gathering place. Most of all, it is fun!”
Becoming a Responsible Food Citizen
For Mary Jo, the best way to ensure healthy, affordable, safe food access for all Minnesotans is for community members to see themselves and others as “food citizens” who have an inherent human right to healthy, affordable, and safe food.
“Collectively, food citizens comprise a food democracy that views safe and nutritious food as a human right,” Mary Jo said. “Food citizens bear a responsibility to become knowledgeable about the food system and how it impacts us all. So roll up your sleeves and help us get there!”