The number of grocery stores moving into the Twin Cities market is cause for celebration (“Supermarket boom,” Dec. 26). More stores mean greater access to wholesome and nutritious foods. Having multiple stores to choose from can help prices remain competitive for consumers. Grocery stores also help to stimulate spinoff economic activity in the neighborhoods where they locate.
Unfortunately, when it comes to access to grocery stores, and healthy and affordable foods, we live in two Minnesotas — the haves and the have-nots. While many areas, such as Bloomington, St. Louis Park and the other communities mentioned in the Star Tribune story, are seeing an influx of grocery stores and markets, hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans reside in so-called food deserts.
Situated in metro and nonmetro regions of the state alike, these locations are experiencing a loss of grocery stores, making it difficult for local residents to access healthy and affordable foods. That lack of access is affecting some of the most vulnerable of our citizens. Of the nearly 350,000 Minnesotans who face distance and income barriers to healthy and affordable foods, 1 in 5 are seniors 65 or older and 1 in 4 are children under the age of 17.
Nowhere is the example of the two Minnesotas more prevalent than in rural Minnesota. A University of Minnesota Extension survey of rural grocery store owners released last year found that 62 percent of respondents intend to own their grocery store for 10 more years or less and the vast majority do not have a transition plan in place to help ensure that the store will continue to operate. Survey respondents also reported that their buildings were aging and in need of upkeep, including more energy-efficient equipment.
These findings are troubling because these stores are a primary source of fresh produce in the communities they serve — foods that are critical to meeting the health needs of Minnesotans. The findings go from troubling to traumatic when you consider that Greater Minnesota has already experienced a staggering loss of grocery stores, with 53 of the state’s 87 counties experiencing a decline in the number of stores per 1,000 residents between 2007 and 2012. (The Godahl Store, discussed in “Country store closes its doors after 122 years,” Jan. 8, is a current example.)
Fortunately, efforts to help support rural grocery stores and the communities where they are located are underway. Last year, the Legislature created the Minnesota Good Food Access program, which is designed to provide loans, grants and technical assistance to help existing grocery stores or new enterprises provide healthy and affordable foods in locations that lack or may lack access to such foods. This year, our lawmakers will be asked to provide significant funding for the program to help make it real for grocery store owners and consumers alike.
Other efforts are taking place as well. At the University of Minnesota Extension, we’re exploring ways to help rural stores become more profitable, thus making them more sustainable for the long term. For example, we are looking at rural grocery stores’ ability to serve as a docking point for small- and medium-sized food crop producers to access wholesale markets. Doing so would benefit producers, store owners and their communities. Rural grocery stores could transform from being the passive end point of a global food distribution system to being an active market participant, playing a pivotal role in wholesale distribution of local foods in rural areas and to metro markets. But for this and other ideas to take root, we have to stem the loss of rural grocery stores.
It is important that Minnesotans work collectively to figure out ways to preserve existing grocery stores, encourage stores to locate where others have closed or develop other innovative community-designed solutions to improve access to healthy and affordable foods. The more we can do to close the divide that currently exists between Minnesotans who have access to good food and those who don’t, the better off all of us will be. Not only does the future health of Minnesota depend on it, so does the economic health of so many of our communities.
Kathryn Draeger is the statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, located throughout all of greater Minnesota. She and her family live and farm in rural Big Stone County.