Filling a grocery gap with local foods

Study indicates food access shapes diets in rural and urban Minnesota

Hope Community's garden is a source of local produce in a neighborhood where grocery options are few. Credit: Ellen Schmidt

For residents of the Phillips neighborhood, produce from the Hope Community gardens represents a fresh alternative to the area’s limited options for healthy food.

The only comprehensive grocery store within walking distance of the area surrounding Portland Avenue South and East Franklin Avenue is an Aldi. However, a few years ago, local residents started voicing concerns about having Aldi as the only local source of produce, Hope Community Program Manager and Community Organizer Betsy Sohn said.

A man Sohn knew had been excited after buying an incredibly cheap bag of cherries at the local Aldi. “However, as he washed the cherries, he was pulling out the ones that were spoiled, and about half were spoiled,” Sohn said.

“So then you realize – maybe the price per cherry is not that good, if half of them are rotten and you can’t eat them.”

Part of the solution at Hope Community, a nonprofit community center and shelter provider, was to partner with the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) in creating their community gardens that have been going strong for the last six years. But the issue of access to healthy food is still felt strongly in the area, just as it is in other places in both rural and urban Minnesota.

The problem of disparities in access to food between various communities, often referred to as the “grocery gap,” has been long discussed in the state of Minnesota. A new study from the Center for Prevention at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota indicates the problem is still widespread, and a concern for many.

The statewide poll consulted 1,000 people in both rural and urban Minnesota about their access to grocery stores and how this affects whether or not they eat healthy foods. Fifty-five percent of respondents from non-urban areas and 46 percent from urban areas said their choices are influenced by a lack of nearby grocery stores.

The poll results demonstrate the role of food access in a person’s decision to eat healthy food, Jenna Carter, senior health improvement project manager at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, said.

“Our polling findings really reiterated and helped to support the case that it’s not just about individual willpower, that that’s a piece of it, but it also requires that healthy options are available,” Carter explained.

With 82 percent of respondents saying it is important to increase access to healthy food, Carter said the study demonstrates people think these issues need to be addressed.

“We really want to use this information [from the poll] to set the stage for more conversations in communities, and to give communities power in advocating for changes that they want, that they determine and they need,” she explained.

Areas where it is difficult to buy affordable, good quality food are termed “food deserts.” In Minneapolis, there are pockets of food deserts throughout the city, with higher concentrations in the eastern portions of Hennepin County, including the Bryant, Central, Harrison, Columbia Park and Marshall Terrace neighborhoods, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food desert research atlas shows.

Several areas, such as the Beltrami in Northeast Minneapolis and Kingfield in Southwest — each with only one small grocery store within their neighborhood borders — have food accessibility issues, although the USDA does not consider them food deserts.

The city has passed a number of possible solutions to its food access issues, including last October’s amendment to the staple foods ordinance broadening and clarifying the regulations on products required to be sold by grocery stores accepting government assistance dollars. In 2014, the Parks Board also adopted its Urban Agriculture Activity Plan, which outlines the involvement of Minneapolis parks in urban agriculture.

However, Sohn said it is imperative to address food inaccessibility at the community level, with local residents deciding on the solutions that work best for them.

“If we think on a smaller scale, that actually addresses a number of the problems we have today,” Sohn said.

It was conversations with the community that led to the creation of the Hope Community’s gardens. Area residents expressed interested in growing their own food and frustration with the area’s lack of fresh produce.

“Growing food, being out in the world, being out in nature — there’s lots of reasons why people come [to the garden] and participate,” Sohn explained.

Hope estimates 170 volunteers worked on the gardens last year, and the produce went to anyone who wanted to fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables.

Several community gardens exist in Minneapolis’ food deserts, such as the Beltrami Community Gardens, created about nine years ago. There is also a community garden in the back of Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative’s Nicollet Square youth shelter created in collaboration with Eco Education.

Dylan Bradford Kesti of Land Stewardship Project — a private nonprofit that promotes sustainable farming practices in rural and urban Minnesota — said he sees community gardens as a “point of entry” for communities to learn about food access issues and get involved with advocating for change.

“We’re out here in the garden, but we’re building relationships, and those relationships then mean that there’s trust and there’s real community,” Kesti said. “So, when we do need to show up to make change at City Council or the Park Board, people do.”

He said education and involvement are imperative for addressing what he sees as the root cause of food inaccessibility in both rural and urban areas: the agriculture industry’s focus on large-scale production.

“My organization for the past thirty years has been working to keep family farm operators on the land and small-scale operators,” Kesti said. “The biggest road block is that we have a food system, we have a national policy of the farm bill, that doesn’t incentivize growing food that is fair, just or healthy.”

Sohn agreed, saying the ultimate solution is moving from passive consumerism to a system where everyone has the skills to grow their own food and where communities eat the food they produce.

“Our communities need to be … re-envisioned as places where we can get our basic needs met, get our human needs met, and be part of contributing,” she said.

Photo by Ellen Schmidt

Some of the vegetables growing in Hope Community’s garden this summer.