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Food access program at risk

  1. PAUL — As the legislative session approaches its close, Gov. Mark Dayton has been busy vetoing bills.

The agriculture finance bill, one of the bills Dayton rejected, would have left the Good Food Access Fund with no money for the next biennium.

The fund was created last year with the passage of a bill authored by District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and District 22 Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne. The bill invested $250,000 into the fund to provide resources such as grants, low-cost loans and technical support for food-related small businesses.

The fund is part of an effort to deliver local produce to areas that otherwise wouldn’t have access — a major issue in rural areas such as southwest Minnesota, where most small towns don’t have a supermarket.

Studies show a lack of access to healthy, affordable food options in small, rural towns means more health problems for those residents, including a greater risk for obesity and obesity-related diseases.

Steve Kinsella of the Minnesota for Healthy Kids Coalition said the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) saw significantly more applicants for the grant program than expected.

The MDA received more than 50 applications totaling more than $1.5 million out of the $150,000 available for Equipment and Physical Improvement Grants. Many of the applicants were small-town grocery stores looking for help in updating their refrigeration systems, an expensive operation that typically isn’t economically feasible.  

The fund was set to receive $500,000 for the next biennium, but the money was cut out during conference committee.

“Minnesota has this significant food desert problem,” Kinsella said. “The legislature acted last year to take steps to help address the problem, tremendous interest developed for the program and its potential to help improve access to healthy and affordable foods, and then the legislature killed the funding for it.”

Good Food Access Fund Campaign Manager Leah Gardner was at the Capitol on Tuesday to talk with legislative leaders. She was hopeful the access fund would be accounted for, but said the main focus in St. Paul this year was simply getting a budget passed.

“Sen. Weber has remained a strong advocate for the fund, and most of the bipartisan ag committee supports it as well,” Gardner said. “It just doesn’t have as strong support as other major issues.”