Winona County Food Partnership Team convenes to address food insecurity

This article was originally published on Winona Daily News and written by Marcia Ratliff, a Winona Daily News reporter covering wellness, environment and arts topics. 

A healthy diet plays a big role in a healthy lifestyle, and the newly-formed Community Food Partnership Team is working to make sure every Winona County resident has access to healthy, affordable food.

The partnership team, organized by Winona Volunteer Services, will meet over the next several months to address food insecurity, or uncertain access to adequate food at the household level.

Sandra Burke, executive director at Winona Volunteer Services, said the idea for the partnership team came from the Minnesota Food Charter, a statewide set of recommendations for improving food access published in late 2014.

According to the charter, in many places, the least nutritious foods are the easiest to find and least expensive, while healthier foods are more costly and harder to find. Minnesota has fewer supermarkets per capita than most states, ranking in the bottom third nationwide.

At the same time, diet-related health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, contribute to increased healthcare costs and decreased productivity across the state. The cost of obesity-related healthcare in Minnesota is $2.8 billion annually, according to a 2006 estimate.

So the charter envisions a future where people—whether older adults or college students or young families, living in rural areas or cities or somewhere in between—have the skills and resources to make healthy choices, and where healthy foods are more affordable and accessible.

The charter covers the whole food system, from seed to table and everything in between. Some challenges, like transportation to grocery stores, can be solved locally, while others will take state and federal changes.

Many food resources exist in Winona County already. Winona Volunteer Services offers a food shelf and healthy cooking classes, along with noon meal delivery for seniors and emergency assistance. The Southeast Minnesota Rural Education and Resource Center in St. Charles provides a similar model for rural residents.

Churches serve meals to the community throughout the week, schools are serving more and better fruits and vegetables, and dozens of local farmers sell their produce at several farmers markets across the county. Local grocery stores donate food and host cooking classes. The list goes on.

“We knew there was a lot going on,” Burke said. “It’s not just food shelves worrying about food.”

But for all of Winona County’s strengths, there’s room for improvement. And Burke, along with Winona Volunteer Services’ nutrition and health educator Nadine Bayer noticed a lack of connection across the food system in the county—a lack of awareness of what everybody else was doing.

They’re hoping the partnership team, consisting of a cross-section of food-related organizations and businesses, can identify gaps in the system and create a roadmap for the future, without duplicating existing services.

“I would like us to somehow agree on what is our priority,” Burke said.

Burke said one of her specific goals is to assess the need and build support for a mobile food delivery system for rural areas, especially in anticipation of an aging population.

“It is something we are very, very interested in spearheading,” she said.

The Community Food Partnership Team of more than 40 community members met for the first time earlier this week. They will meet three more times and conclude their initial assessment in April, when they’ll shift to planning for continued work.

Burke and Bayer said they’re optimistic about the work the food partnership can do—both by galvanizing existing resources and pointing the way for the next steps. The proof is in the community itself, they said, in people gathering and pooling their strengths.

“I feel confident we can make changes,” Burke said.

Bayer said another reason for hope is a change in society at large.

“Everywhere you look, there’s more talk about eating healthier,” she said.