Protecting the Producers: Improving Healthy Food Access for New Immigrant Communities

New immigrants are significant drivers of Minnesota’s food system—not only are they food consumers, but they also play an important role in the growing and distribution of food for local markets. New immigrants work on and own farms, in restaurants, and in supermarkets and other food stores. Their influence on how and what we eat will only increase; the percentage of foreign-born Minnesotans has almost tripled since 1990. Immigrants from places like Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and East Africa are increasingly important players in our food system, and opening up access to healthy foods and nutrition education in these communities are the smart things to do from a health standpoint AND the right thing to do.

Challenges and Strategies for Healthy Food Access

In past months, you’ve read the results of surveys, feedback sessions, and one-on-one interviews with more than 2,000 Minnesotans about healthy food access in Minnesota. As part of that process, various members of new immigrant communities shared their insights about healthy food access for them and their families.

Access to healthy food is a challenge for new immigrant communities, including:

  • Lack of time and money. For many new immigrants living in urban centers, convenience stores and fast food restaurants offer accessible but unhealthy meals, while healthy food is often harder to get and costs more.
  • Concerns about the types of food offered to their children at school.
  • A need for more knowledge in their communities about what healthy food is, and the fact that grocery stores don’t always offer culturally-specific foods means that new immigrants frequently opt for less healthy options.

Participants offered suggestions on how to alleviate these issues. Some called for more healthy options in their neighborhoods and communities–including CSAs and farmer’s markets with culturally-specific foods—so that healthy food is less expensive and more accessible. They also asked for more education about nutrition and healthy cooking with grocery store staples, from the basics of healthy food and healthy recipes to more information about how eating right can improve your health. More globally, participants called for more community engagement with leaders involved in the food system, including government officials, food providers, and physicians, to create better systems for access and health.

Production Challenges

But new immigrants aren’t just consumers of food; they also grow it. These small-scale farmers face a unique set of barriers as growers. Competition with large agricultural businesses, for example, limits access to high-quality, secure land and drives down the market value for produce. Small-scale farmers also are less able to sell their food to places other than farmer’s markets— like wholesalers, where customers can be especially particular about the quality, appearance, and production methods of growers. Participants also stressed a need for community partnerships to help navigate the agricultural system and to help small-scale farmers compete with larger companies.

Many Food Charter participants were hopeful that state and local governments could make fresh, local foods cheaper and more convenient by easing regulations on small and urban farms. Small farms also need to comply with complex and expensive agricultural regulations designed for much larger agricultural operations, which presents difficulties for these small growers.  Allowing urban gardens and encouraging community-owned farming were two recommendations, as well as encouraging foodservices at schools and other community-based institutions to provide healthy food to their stakeholders.

There is much work to be done in helping new immigrant communities improve their healthy food futures. Learn more on the upcoming Third Thursday webinar, For Our Healthy Future: Healthy Food Access for New Immigrant Communities, on Thursday, July 17th at 11:00 a.m. We’ll take a close look at how fostering a culture of healthy eating in these communities and supporting small-scale farmers will help ensure more equitable access to fresh, healthy foods for these communities.

We hope to see you there.