In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, hundreds of thousands of people live in deserts — food deserts.
That’s the term for areas where residents are both low-income and live more than a mile from a full-service grocery store in urban areas, or 10 miles from a grocery in rural areas.
According to a report by Wilder Research, nearly 350,000 Minnesotans live in a food desert. All told, more than 1.6 million Minnesotans of all income levels — 30 percent of the state’s population — lack easy access to healthy food, ranking Minnesota among the bottom 10 states in the nation for access to food.
“It is really a paradox,” said Janelle Waldock, vice president for community health and health equity at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. “We are one of the largest ag states in the nation. We are the breadbasket.
“Yet we have fellow Minnesotans living many miles from a place where they can get healthy food. Combine that with the fast rate we’re aging, and the number of seniors who maybe can’t drive.
“It’s a very real and serious problem.”
Waldock’s job is to use money from the 1998 tobacco industry settlement to promote healthy living in the state. That involves addressing tobacco use, physical activity and healthy eating.
Blue Cross has been lobbying legislators this year for creation of a food access fund that would help support people and communities with hopes of bringing food deserts back to life. That could involve grants or loans for things such as refrigeration systems, bringing more fresh foods to convenience stores or increasing transportation options for those in food deserts.
Blue Cross was hoping for dedicated revenue of $10 million a year, but the best legislators could muster was $500,000, and even that’s not guaranteed to survive the session-ending conference committee.
Still, “it’s a start,” Waldock said.
Food advocates hope to replicate a recent success in Duluth, where Blue Cross has helped Zeitgeist Center for Arts and Community bring food to Lincoln Park, a low-income neighborhood in the city’s West End.
Since the Fair Food Access Campaign began four years ago, Lincoln Park residents have created a community garden and a farmers market, with a second community garden set to be planted this year, along with a greenhouse for year-round cultivation.
A group of residents canvasses the neighborhood regularly, reporting back on food issues they discover from knocking on doors and talking with neighbors.
Zeitgeist also worked with the Duluth Transit Authority to reroute buses past grocery stores to make shopping easier for residents who rely on public transportation.
“We heard a number of stories from residents about how much of their grocery budget was being spent on taxis,” said Tony Cuneo, Zeitgeist’s executive director.
The effort began with a special “Grocery Express” bus that ran twice a week. That’s been expanded to a dedicated route that runs Monday through Friday, with plans to boost access across the entire system. Bins have been installed on every bus in the fleet to provide a place for travelers to put their grocery bags.
Food security has life-or-death consequences, Cuneo said.
“We see health disparities that can be pretty drastic from ZIP code to ZIP code,” he said. “Those disparities can be as large as 10 to 12 years in life expectancy.
“If there isn’t access to fresh and healthy food, and it’s leaving families shopping at a gas station or a convenience store, over a lifetime, that is going to be part of that health disparity.”