Some 1.6 million Minnesotans lack easy access to healthy food, according to a new study by a coalition of economic and health leaders who hope it will motivate the 2016 Legislature to approve funding for mobile grocery stores and other fixes.
Minnesota ranks seventh-worst in the nation for the share of residents — about one-third of its population — with no grocery options close to their homes, according to a report released this week by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and Wilder Research.
The problem of poor retail access is concentrated in rural pockets of the state and in low-income urban centers and is worsening, based on the number of corner grocers that are closing, said Janelle Waldock, vice president of community health and health equity at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, which commissioned the study.
“Think about those two-lane highways that go throughout our state and the number of little tiny towns with buildings that are boarded up that used to be grocery stores that really were community hubs,” she said. “It is a paradox that we live in a state that is so agriculturally based, but that we do have a barrier around providing fresh, healthy food to residents.”
Much of the state saw growth in regional Walmart-style supercenters, the report found. But that still left many people in low-access areas — defined as living at least one mile from the nearest grocery store in urban areas, or 10 miles away in rural areas. And a literature review in the report showed that shoppers tend to buy less healthy foods in supercenters and convenience stores.
Research nationally hasn’t found a surefire correlation between geographic barriers to healthy food and medical problems such as obesity and diabetes, but the link gets stronger when poor access is paired with low incomes.
Using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economic research service, the new report found that 341,000 Minnesotans have both geographic and economic barriers to healthy foods.
Blue Cross and other organizations are backing a solution that has made some headway in the Legislature this session: allocating $10 million in 2017 to a new “good food access program” managed by the state Department of Agriculture. The program would fund loans and grants by which operators could create farmers markets, maintain existing small stores or even launch mobile grocery trucks that circulate among high-need areas.
Given the link between economic status and healthy eating, the funding needs to help grocers in high-need areas make fresh foods more affordable to low-income customers, said Ela J. Rausch, a co-author from the Federal Reserve. The regional bank perceives such social issues as food and child care access as keys to economic growth.
“Just because someone puts a store there doesn’t mean it is going to change consumer eating behaviors,” she said.
A Senate committee focusing on state equity considered the proposal — authored by two DFL senators and three Republicans — on Wednesday. Rausch said there is a case for philanthropic health groups to invest in this area as well, rather than other health care programs, because good eating can prevent downstream medical problems.
Low retail access is a problem for minorities, especially in rural pockets such as Nobles County in southwestern Minnesota, which is home to a growing Hispanic community, and on many American Indian reservations, Rausch said.
But whites actually are more likely to have poor retail access than blacks, the study found. The access problem was more severe for elderly and low-income Minnesotans.
Even living a mile or two from a grocer in an urban area can be problematic for these groups, Waldock said. “Think about families who have barriers to transportation or may work multiple jobs and their time is really stretched.”