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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Many Minnesotans Find Themselves Stranded on a "Food Desert"

Public News Service (02/28/12) ST. PAUL, MN

If your weekly trip to the grocery store is quite a trek, you are not alone. A new study finds that Minnesota has fewer supermarkets per capita than most states, and both urban and rural areas are affected by that scarcity.

Among the groups looking to address the issue is Hunger Solutions Minnesota, whose Executive Director, Colleen Moriarty, says improving access to supermarkets in under-served areas will create jobs and spur economic growth.

She says it'll also mean more affordable and nutritious food choices.

"I know that the way that people are able to provide for their family, the nutritional value of what they can bring home for themselves and their family, will be greatly increased if the whole issue of accessibility is addressed; and this is an effort to do that."

The study of Minnesota's grocery-store gap was conducted by the Food Trust. According to program director Miriam Minon, people living in under-served neighborhoods eat fewer fruits and vegetables and are more apt to be overweight.

"These are the same communities where residents are likely to experience high rates of diet-related disease, things like diabetes and obesity. And we really know that in some neighborhoods and communities it's challenging for residents to conveniently access stores selling fresh and healthy food."

Minon says improving access isn't a silver bullet, but it is an important factor in dealing with obesity.

So what's the solution to getting grocery stores in these currently under-served areas? Minon says there are a number of successful models, many pulling together both private and public interests. She says one of the best examples of that is the Fresh Food Financing Initiative in Pennsylvania, which helps developers overcome some of the high initial investment costs.

"The program has been able to get stores to open all across the state in previously under-served areas and to help existing grocers who are interested in expanding their offerings. Ninety supermarkets actually have been developed or expanded all across the state of Pennsylvania in lower-income communities as a result of that program."

The study from the Food Trust concludes that Minnesota has 40 fewer supermarkets than the population needs. The so-called grocery-store "deserts" are mainly in low-income neighborhoods, and affect 900,000 people, nearly one-fourth of them children.

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