Melvin Anderson is tackling obesity and diabetes in north Minneapolis one family at a time.

The former Gopher football and NFL player is opening a new wellness facility off Plymouth Avenue N. and Lyndale Avenue to fill a void in fitness classes and nutrition counseling in the community.

"There's a growing demand for our type of service," said Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit Youth & Families Determined to Succeed. "We're trying to meet people where they're at."

It's part of increasing efforts by nonprofits to combat health disparities in the neediest parts of the city. North Minneapolis is a federally designated food desert — a low-income census tract where a significant portion of the population lives more than a mile from a supermarket. And its Near North and Camden neighborhoods have among the highest obesity rates in Hennepin County, with 32% of residents reporting they were obese in a 2018 survey.

But nonprofit leaders are hopeful they can reduce obesity and decrease diabetes and high blood pressure over time. On Monday, the Minneapolis nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities will install a new outdoor farm on a grassy North Side field to grow fresh food for its North Market, a community wellness center and grocery store that opened two years ago.

Nearby, Northpoint Health & Wellness' nonprofit arm provides free fruits and vegetables at an outdoor market that opens for the season in May.

It also launched a delivery truck five years ago to bring free food to North Side and Robbinsdale residents in need who aren't able to get to their food shelf.

Anderson's nonprofit is housed in a formerly shuttered bookbinding building that V3 Sports, a nonprofit triathlon program, bought for $4.7 million in 2017, with plans to open a $44 million training complex such as a track, training space for wellness programs for the neighborhood and an Olympic-sized pool, which would be north Minneapolis' only public indoor pool.

"I think [fitness is] definitely beginning to be an area recognized as a quality of life thing like affordable housing," said Erika Binger, a former triathlete and philanthropist who founded V3; her great-grandfather, 3M executive William McKnight, started the McKnight Foundation. "[Triathlon is a] really racially segregated sport. We're trying to open it up and give opportunities."

It's part of the growing momentum behind diversifying sports, such as programs at Theodore Wirth Regional Park that introduce snowboarding and other winter activities to more women and people of color.

Making healthy changes

Anderson is also trying to boost affordable access to fitness classes and nutrition counseling.

He launched Track Minnesota Elite, a youth summer track and field club, in 1999.

And a decade later, when parents came asking for his help to address obesity issues with their children, he started a pilot program offering fitness classes for kids and expanded it to their parents.

"No one is focusing on the family unit," Anderson said.

The 350 kids and adults who participated — all African-American, African and Hispanic — took fitness classes, got nutrition counseling and wellness coaching and learned how to cook healthy meals and control portion sizes.

"We're saving lives and saving money," said Anderson, adding that helping change the behavior of high-cost obese patients will help the health care industry. "People just need other choices besides going to bariatric surgery. This is intervention."

He worked with medical professionals to evaluate the three-year pilot, and by the end, the average participant lost three to nine pounds and those with high heart rates or high blood pressure moved into the normal range, he said.

Ashley Springfield, 31, was one of the north Minneapolis residents in the program and said she learned skills she didn't get when competing in track in high school.

She swapped out iceberg lettuce and fried chicken for healthier alternatives, got a gym membership and took up yoga — healthy routines that she and her 14-year-old son, Jaivon Hill, continue today.

Anderson is now launching the wellness initiative three days a week out of his new year-round space. A grand opening May 4 will show off the 12,000 square feet of leased space that has a fitness center, wellness area and healthy eating kitchen.

"It's making a change," Springfield said. "It's going to be great for north Minneapolis."

With 12 staff, Anderson has ambitious long-term goals to combat generational obesity by turning the facility into a specialty health care clinic. He's working with experts at the Mayo Clinic and University of Minnesota to evaluate the program later this year. At the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Joyce Balls-Berry, a psychiatric epidemiologist, said the study will also fill a gap in Minnesota in health research specifically focused on minority communities.

"They found a way to give a voice to the voiceless," she said. "They found a way to engage these diverse stakeholders to eliminate obesity and childhood obesity in diverse communities. … It takes time."