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Demand swamps funding in MN 'food deserts'

The logo that will decorate the truck and goods sold from he White Earth Market's mobile truck. Photo Special to the Tribune

A new program that helps bring healthy and affordable foods to rural Minnesotans is far more popular with food retailers than supporters of the program imagined, according to a report from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

The so-called "food deserts" in Minnesota where fresh, healthy affordable food is hard to come by include White Earth and some surrounding areas.

"When you look at where there are the greatest food challenges in Minnesota, that area is particularly hard hit ... It's about as bad as it gets," Leah Gardner, the American Heart Association's good food access campaign manager, said in an interview.

The program, the Minnesota Good Food Access Program, was created by the Minnesota Legislature two years ago and is designed to provide loans, grants and technical assistance to help retail stores or new enterprises provide healthy and affordable foods where needed.

Lawmakers gave it a one-time appropriation of $250,000 in last year. Another appropriation through the Agricultural Growth, Research, and Innovation Program allows for up to $250,000 per year for the next two years to be allocated for the Good Food Access at the discretion of the commissioner.

A request for proposals was issued last March to provide up to $150,000 to help grocery stores and small food retailers pay for equipment and improvements.

The demand was surprising, Gardner said.

The department received 57 eligible applications totaling more than $1.4 million. A total of $150,000 was awarded for eight projects, with amounts ranging from $3,716 to $39,000.

"We knew there would be significant demand for program dollars throughout the state, but frankly we did not expect demand to be this great, especially in the first year of the program," said Gardner, who worked with a bipartisan group of legislators to help create the program.

Gardner said that the limited amount of dollars available under the program also likely prevented larger applicants, such as those interested in building new retail outlets, from applying.

Of the eight funded proposals, four serve rural communities and four serve urban areas (including St. Cloud and the Twin Cities.) Five are for-profit businesses, two are non-profit organizations, and one is a tribal government.

That last one would be the White Earth Nation, which invested in a refrigeration truck to be used for the White Earth Mobile Market.

White Earth will purchase two vegetable display coolers for two convenience stores (Richwood Store in Richwood and Chief Corner Store in Ponsford) and two refrigerators for Manna Food Co-op in Detroit Lakes.

"I'm glad White Earth was able to get funding this time around," she said. "There's a tremendous demand with only a small amount of dollars to be divided. White Earth had a plan and was ready to apply when resources became available."

Making sure people have access to fresh, healthy affordable food is a "health issue, it's an economics issue, and it's also a food sovereignty issue. They have a multi-faceted plan and a community engagement process to see what they want to do in the long term."

On the short term, Gardner added, "the mobile market should be incredibly popular, I imagine ... they've been working on this for a while—their connection to Manna food co-op in Detroit Lakes should be helpful."

Gardner said that more funding would help solve the 'food desert' problem in Minnesota. "We're stuck with not quite enough resources," she said. "$10 million a year would actually, frankly be very much needed. Minnesota is actually among the worst state in the nation in this area. We have some work to do to hold onto our rural grocery stores..."

Studies show that more than 340,000 Minnesotans face both distance and income as a barrier to obtaining healthy, affordable food, and 235,000 Minnesotans live more than 10 miles away from a large grocery store or supermarket.

Many of the retail food outlets in these locations are aging and often in need of equipment and facility upgrades.

The lack of access to healthy foods impacts Minnesotans of all ages, in urban and rural locations alike. Of those who face distance and income barriers to healthy and affordable foods, one in five are 65 or older and one in four are children or teens.

A second RFP for an estimated $135,000 was released in mid-January, and will provide need-based technical assistance, such as business planning, financing and marketing, to grocers and small food retailers, Gardner said.

A second equipment and physical improvement request for proposals for grocers and small food retailers will be released later this year.

A full copy of the MDA report is on the department's website at: https://www.mda.state.mn.us/news/~/media/Files/news/govrelations/legrpt-...

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