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A grocery gap: Effort growing to boost Good Food Access Fund

WORTHINGTON — It’s not uncommon for residents of small towns to have to drive a dozen miles to buy groceries at a supermarket.

The 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, according to a 2011 report from The Food Trust.

Last year, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill to create the Good Food Access Fund and invested $250,000 into the fund to provide resources such as grants, low-cost loans and technical support for food-related small businesses. It was all part of an effort to deliver local produce to areas that otherwise wouldn’t have access.

Now, southwest Minnesota — a region heavily affected by the issue — is taking the lead to further the fight for food access. District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and District 22 Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, are chief authors of a bill that would create an annual $10 million appropriation to the fund.

The problem

About 1.6 million Minnesotans have “low retail access to healthy food,” meaning they live more than one mile away from a full-service grocery store in urban areas and more than 10 miles away in rural ones.

In southwest Minnesota, small-town residents often rely on convenience stores or small grocery stores for a quick bite to eat or a drink. To find produce, it’s common that they’ll have to drive to a larger regional center to shop at a supermarket.

Local grocery or convenience stores have struggled to stay afloat with declining populations, decaying equipment and aging owners. Some towns — including Heron Lake, for example — have lost their grocery stores in recent years.

Many stores lack the incentive to invest in upgrades to sell produce, as the cash flow simply isn’t there, according to Good Food Access Fund Campaign Manager Leah Gardner.

“A good example is a store that is doing OK, but not necessarily bringing in a profit that allows them to invest in something like a new refrigeration unit,” Gardner said. “So getting those equipment upgrades helps the community because they’re able to hold more fresh produce and more healthy foods, and it helps the business stay around longer as a result.”

A 2016 study from the University of Minnesota Extension found that in communities with populations less than 2,500, 62 percent of owners intend to keep their stores for 10 years or less. A large majority do not have a plan to transition their business.

Southwest Regional Development Commission Economic Development Director Robin Weis said the aging of small business owners is a major problem that needs to be addressed.

“That's something we'll have to run into — when these people retire, are they going to get somebody to buy their store?” Weis said.

Gardner pointed out that if stores don’t have a solid infrastructure, it will be difficult to get someone to take over when the owner wants to sell.

The impact

When people don’t have easy access to produce, they are less likely to purchase it. A study from the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota found that nearly half of Minnesotans — 49 percent — report that not having a store nearby that sells healthy food directly impacts what they eat.

“Because what do we have access to? We have access to potato chips,” Weis said. “It might not be the best option, but that’s what we have access to.”

An August 2016 study from the American Heart Association found that a lack of access to nearby stores selling fresh food may increase residents’ risk of developing early heart disease. Healthy food stores located within one mile of participants’ homes reduced or slowed the progression of calcium buildup in heart arteries.

The impacts go beyond health and delve into economic development, according to Steve Kinsella of the Minnesota for Healthy Kids Coalition.

“At its heart, this program is designed to feed people and provide healthy and affordable food, particularly in food deserts,” Kinsella said.

“But it’s also an economic development component in that small towns — if you’re able to retain a grocery store, grocery stores are often anchor businesses that help other businesses thrive around them. When they go, that benefit to the community goes as well.”

The draw of the small town loses its gravity when its residents have to drive 10 or 20 miles to buy food that isn’t made in a factory.

“Who at a younger family level is going to move into these communities if they don’t have access to those kinds of things?” Weis said. “They’re looking for amenities, and oftentimes that is somewhere where they can purchase their milk, bread and eggs, and so forth.”

The fix

There isn’t a magic bullet for food access struggles, but Gardner said the $10 million annual appropriation would “put a very serious dent in the problem.”

Money could go toward new refrigeration systems, for example, to allow small stores to offer fresh produce. In order to make sure a store does well in transitioning to selling fresh goods, the fund has set aside a certain portion for technical assistance and marketing.

“If people are used to going for that grocery store or gas station for pop and chips, you’ve got to change an expectation and a behavior,” Gardner said. “We’ve had a lot research done on if you want to start carrying healthier foods, how to make that work — you can’t just change what you’re offering, you’ve got to market it to your consumers.”

Gardner stressed the food didn't necessarily have to be fresh: more stores offering canned and frozen produce would also be beneficial. She also hoped to see other solutions involving the farming community.

“We have a strong agricultural presence, so we’re hoping to see not just traditional grocery store models but farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture; things that can support local farmers, too,” Gardner said.

Applications for the initial appropriation were due Wednesday. The Department of Agriculture, which runs the fund, said there was "an overwhelming amount of interest in the program, and that the interest has exceeded our expectations."

The fight

Like with any budget item, the campaign will need all the support it can get to find $10 million out of the limited pool of resources.

Right now, the fund is due for its standard $500,000 appropriation for the next biennium.

Last year, Hamilton authored the bill that would create the fund. Weber joined to push for the higher annual appropriation.

“Those two, along with a number of legislators, latched on and understood the importance because they are seeing firsthand in their own communities what food access challenges look like,” Gardner said.

Though the item was not present in Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget, Gardner said the governor’s office has articulated support for it as a valuable idea. The bill has seen support from some metro legislators, as good food access is an issue in some areas of St. Paul and surrounding suburbs.