Access and Affordability: Critical Food Issues in Minnesota

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from the Healthy Eating Minnesota online network. Visit

Nobles County, in the southwestern corner of Minnesota, produces plenty of food. In fact, it ranks among the top 10 counties in the state in total agricultural production. Yet access to healthy food can be a challenge in this part of the state, where agriculture is highly industrialized.

“Sadly, we don’t produce locally much of what we eat,” says David Benson, who for many years raised livestock and grew organic crops on the Nobles County farm where he grew up and who served as a Nobles County commissioner for more than two decades. The rural county also has a relatively high percentage of low-income residents who don’t live close to a grocery store. As a result, they have limited access to healthy food options.

A shortage of grocery stores isn’t a problem in the communities that Maria Regan Gonzalez works with as a health specialist with the Bloomington public health department. She says that a recent community food assessment of the three suburban cities served by the department—Bloomington, Edina, and Richfield—shows that although grocery stores are relatively plentiful and evenly dispersed, affordability is a significant barrier to healthy food access for low-income residents, many of whom are recent immigrants and seniors on fixed incomes.

As members of the Minnesota Food Charter Steering Committee, Benson and Gonzalez – along with more than 2,000 state residents from all regions, sectors, and communities – have worked since early 2013 to identify barriers to healthy food access in their communities and develop strategies to overcome them. Between February and August, nearly 150 public input sessions were held throughout the state, hosted by diverse organizations and attended by diverse communities. Special customized sessions were held for tribal communities, low-literacy audiences, and state residents who don’t speak English as their first language. Focus groups and interviews were also conducted with key stakeholders who have particular insights into agricultural production of healthy food or healthy food access in institutional settings, such as schools, childcare centers and healthcare facilities. In addition, nearly 400 individuals shared their perspectives on healthy food access by means of an online survey.

With guidance from the Minnesota Food Charter Steering Committee, feedback from all of these events and surveys is now being analyzed to identify the most significant barriers to healthy food access and the most promising solutions to these problems. On Nov. 18, these findings will be shared and more input obtained using an online townhall forum process called “MindMixer.” The Minnesota Food Charter MindMixer platform will allow the public to comment on and rank the relative importance of the barriers that have been identified.

MindMixer visitors can also weigh in with their ideas on the likely effectiveness of proposed strategies to solve these problems. This exciting exchange, which will last through January 2014, will be accompanied by regional meetings across the state and additional in-person interaction hosted by a variety of communities and organizations in January.

Following this phase of interaction and input, the drafting of the Minnesota Food Charter by a volunteer group of diverse sectors and communities will begin. After review and refinement by the Steering Committee, a final draft will be shared with the public in October 2014.

The purpose of all this focused activity is to create a document that will clearly identify Minnesota’s principles and priorities concerning access to healthy food and inform planning and decision-making across the state.

“The Minnesota Food Charter is a vehicle to help us think about and discuss what we want our relationship to food to be,” says Benson. This document will help “move the dial” on policies and systems changes that can transform food environments where we work, live, play, and learn, increasing access to healthy food for all Minnesotans and strengthening the infrastructure needed to provide this food.

One of the explicit goals of the Minnesota Food Charter is to knit together existing efforts to promote healthy food access into a broader, more collaborative network

“I think that shared agenda could really help move us forward,” says Gonzalez. “If it’s something that local and state decision-makers and people in leadership roles really pay attention to, I think we could really get a lot of great work done.”

Special thanks to Healthy Eating Minnesota for sharing this article with our readers. For more information, visit