The SHIP-Food Charter Connection
In 2008, faced with skyrocketing health care and health costs due to the growing impacts of unhealthy eating, a lack of physical activity and tobacco use, Minnesota policymakers had to make a decision. They could hope piecemeal efforts in the public and private sectors designed to combat this growing triple threat might positively impact the health of Minnesotans, or they could implement a wide-reaching program at the state and local level to make healthy choices the easy choice. Fortunately, they chose the latter and the Minnesota Statewide Health Improvement Program was born.
SHIP, as the program became known, has worked throughout Minnesota over the last four years to give communities the tools to increase healthy food access and make it easy for citizens to choose healthy options. The program’s impacts have been far reaching, including farm to cafeteria programs that increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in child care and school settings and establishing community-based farmers markets and developing consumer-based healthy eating strategies, such as improving fresh fruit and vegetable offerings in small grocery stores.
Seeing the success of the effort, in 2013 a bipartisan coalition of Minnesota legislators increased funding for the program, which will give SHIP the means to further its positive impact on the health and lives of Minnesotans. The Minnesota Food Charter will play an important role in that effort, establishing a multi-faceted blueprint that expands access to healthy food where people live, work, learn and play.
In its first four years, SHIP has made significant strides in helping Minnesotans at the local level make healthier choices. But in that effort, those working with the program at the state and local level have also recognized that there are barriers that local citizens and public health agencies often have difficulty overcoming.
Lisa Gemlo, a fruit and vegetable coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health, says that the barriers can range from long-standing, accepted practices, to existing regulations and even to perceptions.
“Because of the complexity of food systems … local residents have started to bump up against issues bigger than their local community,” she says.
Gemlo sees the work of the Minnesota Food Charter as an important tool in the effort to unravel many barriers local communities face with respect to healthy food access. She says the ongoing work of the Food Charter to gather public input helps reveal those barriers and will influence the development of opportunities and strategies at the local level to overcome them.
The Food Charter will also play a significant role in helping to create strategies for another key SHIP initiative—working with major community institutions. Central to that effort is the recognition that institutions, such as hospitals, have opportunities to improve access to healthy foods for their patients, employees and visitors and to serve as leaders in generating healthy food access throughout the community.
The Food Charter document developed out of the public input process will also guide decisions around how resources are allocated to increase the consumption of locally raised fruits and vegetables among youth at schools and child care centers.
For Minnesotans, everyone has a stake in improving our health, thereby reducing the costs associated with diseases caused by unhealthy eating. Gemlo says that is one of the important aspects of the public input process associated with the Food Charter. Not only do the Food Charter events give local participants an opportunity to express their interests and ideas, it gives them a voice in how Minnesota will improve healthy eating in the state.
“This is not an individual problem, it is a collective issue. It is going to take a lot of people doing a lot of different things for us to affect change,” says Gemlo.
Photo credit: University of Minnesota Extension (Laurie Schneider Photography)