Fruits and vegetables can be pricey and don't always make it into low-income families' refrigerators. Homegrown South, a new program of Eagan-based the Open Door food shelf, wants to change that.

"It's about changing the systems that could be creating barriers to accessing healthy food," said Lisa Horn, executive director at the Open Door.

The program, which held its kickoff celebration in July, is tackling food insecurity in Dakota County by looking at the bigger picture. Through partnerships, it's studying the local food system and building relationships to change it to better support farmers and ensure healthy foods are available for low-income residents in the area.

It's an initiative that Dakota County needs, said Janelle Waldock, director of the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. The Center for Prevention helps fund Homegrown South, along with the Dakota County Public Health Department.

"In Minnesota, we have the luxury of living in one of the healthiest states in the nation," Waldock said. "But at the same time, when you take a close look at health data, we also have a lot of work to do in terms of health disparities — the big gap that exists between the healthy and the unhealthy."

Homegrown South aims to decrease that disparity by making healthy foods more accessible. But their mission isn't only about getting more fruits and vegetables onto residents' tables. The group is also focused on sustainable food production with fair wages for farmers and workers.

The group recently released a report, "Farming Perspectives and the Food System in Dakota County," which outlines barriers for small-scale farmers in the area. The study was based on a survey of 41 local farmers.

Farmers' challenges included health insurance costs, finding loans to expand land and production, and the cost of hiring and housing seasonal labor, as required by law.

"What this assessment really did was formalize and create some evidence behind some of that anecdotal information that we were hearing across the South metro area," Horn said.

She hopes the information can be used to encourage local residents and officials to develop plans for access to healthy food across the county.

"It's something that really hasn't been focused on in the past through the planning process, and we hope to kind of elevate healthy food access within that process," Horn said.

The Public Health Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law is also examining food-related policies for Homegrown South. That effort will help pinpoint opportunities for change, Horn said.

Going forward, Homegrown South will also focus on getting community members involved though quarterly meetings with farmers, consumers, local businesses and others with a stake in food production and distribution. Later this year, the group will host a book club, which will read "Turn Here Sweet Corn" by farming advocate and Eagan resident, Atina Diffley.

Ultimately, Homegrown South hopes to develop a community that works together to advocate for policies that will help more fresh food reach low-income families in Dakota County, Horn said.

Local roots

While Homegrown South was recently adopted as a program of the Open Door, it has roots reaching back to 2011. A team at Valley Natural Foods, a Burnsville-based food cooperative, hatched the idea, which is modeled after the Homegrown Minneapolis program.

In 2012, the co-op realized that funding for the program would be hard to secure without nonprofit status, so they looked for a nonprofit to lead Homegrown South. The Open Door was an obvious choice, said Erin Erickson, promotions and education coordinator at Valley Natural Foods.

"[The Open Door] has actually changed their entire parameters of what they bring into the food shelf, so they don't accept certain processed things anymore," she said. "It just seemed like the right relationship because they understood the mission and values of what was behind Homegrown South."

The Open Door food shelves, located in Eagan and Lakeville, focus on providing nutritional food to low-income families in the area. The food shelf doesn't distribute sugary drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, chips or canned pastas.

The food shelf offers a unique model for others around the state, Waldock said.

"They're going to be able to lead the effort and model the way for other emergency food programs to offer healthy choices," she said. "[T]hat would be a big change of the status quo and a huge success."

Janice Bitters is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.