A method of transforming food shelves into more welcoming places with a wider variety of healthy food choices is continuing to expand across the state.

The partnership of organizations behind the model, called SuperShelf, last year received an evaluation grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the model and its impact on clients' diets and health. This month, eight more food-shelf sites — in Elk River, St. Cloud, St. Paul, Plymouth, Mora, Brainerd and Gaylord — have been selected to adopt the model and be a part of that research, which launched in 2017 and will take place over five years.

SuperShelf grew out of a 2012 partnership between Valley Outreach, whose services include a food shelf, and HealthPartners' Lakeview Hospital, both in Stillwater. The pilot program revamped Valley Outreach's food shelf, adding more nutritious foods and displaying them in a way that looked more like a grocery store than a warehouse.

"This is about changing the culture of the food shelf," said Marna Canterbury, director of community health at Lakeview Health.

The SuperShelf model calls for increased access to heathy foods and applies principles of behavioral economics to encourage clients to make healthy choices.

"People know they want to eat healthier; they just need access," said Tracy Maki, executive director of Valley Outreach.

Fresh fruits and veggies — some of which come from local farms and gardens — are placed near the entrance to the food shelf. Options are organized by food groups, with signage and strategic placement aimed at emphasizing nutritious staple items. Recipes are posted on many of the shelves, offering suggestions for how to make a meal from the fresh items. Clients can also choose from a range of spices, seasonings and cooking oils, allowing them to make a meal according to cultural preferences.

The tenets of the SuperShelf model work to nudge clients toward better choices, but processed and canned foods are still available.

"We aren't the food police," Maki said. "We just ask that they take what they will use."

As Canterbury put it, implementing the SuperShelf model can help flip the paradigm of serving people who visit a food shelf.

"It makes our job about helping people be healthier, not just distributing food," Canterbury said, adding that replicating and continuing to research the model could "measurably change health in Minnesota."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440