Food Charter looks to make healthy foods a priority for residents in rural areas of Minnesota

by Tom Cherveny

GRANITE FALLS — So-called “food deserts” in our nation’s urban areas have received much press lately, but the problem may be even more challenging in parts of rural southwestern Minnesota.

In urban areas, food deserts are neighborhoods where convenience stores are the main source of food items. They primarily stock snack foods and very little in the way of fresh produce or other healthy items.

In many small towns along Minnesota’s western border, there are no grocery stores either. Access to fresh produce and affordable, healthy food requires much more than a 10-minute bus ride, said Maggi Adamek, with Terra Soma Consulting Services. Many residents in these communities are senior citizens and low-income people who face transportation issues. Some also have health issues where diet and access to healthy foods takes on added significance.

“Is access to health food fairly distributed across society?” asked Adamek as she addressed nearly 60 people Tuesday for Minnesota Food Charter event in Granite Falls. They included a mix of local foods producers, and professionals from public health, hunger relief agencies, health care, education and business. They came with two objectives: To provide input toward a “Food Charter” for Minnesota and promote a system for southwestern Minnesota that improves access to healthy foods.

Minnesota is following the lead of states like Michigan and Iowa in preparing a “Food Charter” that will serve to guide food policy in the state. While the goal is to improve access to healthy foods everywhere, there are differences in both the needs and solutions that will work best in each region. Southwest Minnesota needs to have a big voice in the process, said Anne Dybsetter, University of Minnesota extension. She helped lead the gathering along with Adamek.

Many of those attending the session want to see the region’s local food economy grow to improve access to healthy foods. The focus of much of the discussion at this session was on how to develop institutional markets, such as schools, hospitals and work places. There are many challenges. “It’s dimes to the dollars,” said local foods producer Sunny Rothchild, Walnut Grove. Local foods growers realize better prices selling directly to customers, rather than in large volumes to institutions. There are also infrastructure needs for storing and distributing the large volumes needed by institutions. The biggest challenge of all seems to be matching supply with demand.

There are solutions. Adamek pointed out that schools in northwestern Minnesota are purposely creating a common menu. It allows local producers to know exactly how many bushels of potatoes, carrots, or other foods will be purchased, and they can plan accordingly.

The extension service, Minnesota Department of Public Health, and the Southwest Regional Sustainable development Partnership were among those who helped convene the gathering. It’s the first of many that will be held through August as the state gathers input towards a Food Charter, according to Adamek and Dybsetter. There are already 30 other input sessions scheduled in the months ahead, and they encouraged others to host input sessions of their own.

This story first appeared in the West Central Tribune. Photo by Tom Cherveny.