SunThisWeek.com | September 10, 2015
The program, which kicked off in July, is led by The Open Door and comprised of a network of food producers, hunger relief agencies and community groups to make healthy food more accessible and support local farmers. The program abides by the Metro Food Access Network’s definition of health food: “Foods that promote health and well-being of diverse communities and are produced in a way that is environmentally sustainable, accessible, affordable and culturally familiar for all consumers, and that provides fair wages for farmers and workers.”
“The Open Door decided to look at metro food systems not just through food shelves but how to relieve food barriers,” said Margaret Perez, food access and equity manager at Homegrown South.
The program began out of an idea hatched by Valley Natural Foods, a Burnsville-based food cooperative, in 2011 that is modeled after the Homegrown Minneapolis program. In 2012, the co-op realized that funding the program would be difficult without nonprofit status, so it looked for a nonprofit partner and turned to the The Open Door. The Open Door, which operates food shelves in Eagan and Lakeville, focuses on providing nutritional food and doesn’t distribute sugary drinks, cakes, cookies, chips or canned pasta at its pantries.
A recent study revealed a “grocery gap” or the lack of accessibility to healthy food is felt by nearly half of all Minnesotans. This gap often prevents families, particularly low-income families from eating healthy.
A 2015 survey by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota’s Center for Prevention, which polled 1,000 Minnesotans, showed 56 percent of people believe they don’t have access to stores and markets that sell healthy food.
“When we think about eating healthy, we often think of it as a choice and will power,” said Jenna Carter, project policy manager for the Center for Prevention. “And although these are important, what is available around people also impacts healthy choices. We need to make sure healthy foods are available in all communities in Minnesota.”
Rural Minnesotans reported facing the most barriers with 40 percent of them reporting they have to travel 10 minutes or more to get to a place that sells healthy food.
Perez noted that perceptions are also different in every community.
“Ten minutes many seem like a long distance to people in urban communities, but it’s often seen as a short distance for people in suburban and rural communities,” she said.
In Dakota County, reliable transportation is often the greatest barrier. Low-income families who don’t own a car are often left with few transportation options due to the county’s limited bus services, Perez said. This forces many families to purchase only what they can carry.
Members of Homegrown South are working with Public Health Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law to examine food-related policies that could address these issues.
“Transportation is really challenging because its a tricky balance,” Perez said. “If there’s not enough riders, they cut service but if there’s not enough service, there’s no riders.”
Providing families with additional options beyond the grocery store is also key to breaking barriers, Perez said. She pointed to Eagan as a community that has “made great strides” in expanding options by providing community gardens and both a summer and winter weekly farmers market.
“The community gardens are practical and civic building but they’re more important than that,” Perez said. “When people have a low income and are struggling, they often feel isolated and here they get to grow something beautiful together, and build a strong community. They have a sense of ownership.”
Homegrown South members also hope to promote better access to and awareness of local farmers markets such as Eagan Market Fest.
“There’s the perception that farmers markets are not affordable, but the produce there is often actually cheaper than the grocery store. And it’s fresher so it will last longer,” Perez said.
Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul farmers markets accept EBT or what was formerly known as food stamps. Low-income families are able use their EBT cards to purchase tokens that are in $1 and $5 increments. These tokens are used to purchase any foods that are eligible under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Homegrown organizers plan to examine ways to provide better transportation to local farmers markets and whether these markets could begin excepting EBT.
The program’s scope goes beyond access to affordable food for consumers. It also focuses on ensuring farmers have a sustainable livelihood.
“A lot of our farmers struggle to make ends meet too,” Perez said. “Local farmers have a huge passion for feeding people and being accessible but they can’t under sell themselves constantly to keep up with the Walmarts of the world.”
The group recently released a report, “Farming Perspectives and the Food System in Dakota County,” which outlines barriers for small-scale farmers in the county. The study was based on a survey of 41 area farmers.
The greatest challenges farmers face, according to the report, are health insurance costs, obtaining loans to expand land and production, and the cost of hiring and housing seasonal laborers, as required by law.
Perez said she hopes the report will encourage people to change some of their buying habits and support small-scale, local farmers.
Homegrown South members are working on a pilot program that encourages small grocery stores and markets to sell blemished produce at a discounted rate instead of throwing them in the trash. Food shelves are also taking these items as well as goods that farmers were unable to sell at local markets to reduce food waste and expand healthy food access.
“We’re constantly working on and looking for new great ideas,” Perez said.
Community members are encouraged to get involved in the effort by attending Homegrown South quarterly meetings or joining its book club or Facebook page.
Homegrown South organizers host quarterly meetings, which members of the public can join to discuss ways to address barriers to health food. The next meeting will be held Oct. 25. The location and time has yet to be determined.
The Homegrown South book club also meets quarterly and discusses books that address local food issues, systems and values. The club’s next book discussion will be around “Turn Here for Sweet Corn,” by Atina Diffley on Thursday, Sept. 24, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Robert Trail Library in Rosemount.
For more information on Homegrown South, visitwww.theopendoorpantry.