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Irrigating Minnesota's Food Deserts

August 03, 2010 By Senta Knuth, Undergraduate Research Fellow

It doesn't take a geographer to know that Minnesota's landscape is void of deserts. Or is it? From rural towns in Southwest Minnesota to North Minneapolis, Minnesota has plenty of deserts: food deserts.

What is a "Food Desert"?

A "food desert" is usually defined as an area or neighborhood in which healthy food sources are few and far between. In other words, even if you want to buy and eat fresh fruits and vegetables, you can't easily find them in your community. This physical lack of healthy food stocks is exacerbated in many cases by low levels of financial access to healthy food, poor education about nutrition, and a lack of viable transportation options.

Researchers now blame some of the state's challenge with obesity on food deserts. Since 1995, Minnesota's rate of obesity has increased from 15 percent to 25 percent, bringing the total to roughly 1.3 million Minnesotans. From a White House campaign to end childhood obesity to small-scale community programs, groups are working hard to reduce the number of food deserts across Minnesota and the nation. 

When it comes to improving food access, big cities share a common link with rural towns.  In urban neighborhoods, zoning laws and real estate costs contribute to a lack of supermarkets. In rural communities, supermarket chains often find low-population areas unattractive. Both situations can lead to food deserts.  Suburban locales, however, enjoy the benefits of low-cost real estate and growing populations; supermarkets are abundant and food is often more affordable.

Food Deserts in the Twin Cities

In 2006, food deserts covered about one-half of Minneapolis and nearly one-third of St. Paul. This shortage of stores that offer healthy food choices is so pervasive that many Twin Cities suburbs have 20 times the number of food stores per capita than their urban counterparts. While this may not be as much of a problem for families with adequate transportation to suburban supermarkets, it can present a true challenge for the one in five Twin Cities households that don't have cars.

Junk food has become cheaper, but it costs us more

Families living in "food deserts" usually face a problem that goes far beyond the scarcity of fresh fruits and vegetables in the local grocery aisle. In recent years, fast foods and other types of food items with low nutritional value have become increasingly cheap and widely available. A Cornell University study conducted by economist John Cawley found that in inflation-adjusted dollars, the cost of fruits and vegetables has gone up over time, while fast food and soda has become cheaper. In many communities, there are fast food joints on every block. Couple that with a much lower per-calorie cost for unhealthy foods, and it's no wonder people aren't loading up on organic fruits and vegetables.

Food Deserts or Food Swamps?

Most analysts agree that a lack of access to healthy food sources, unhealthy diets, and a general lack of exercise for an increasing number of Americans are contributing to the rising obesity levels and health care expenditures. In 2005 alone, obesity cost Minnesota about $9.3 billion in direct and indirect health care costs. But the rhetoric varies on what lies at the root of the problem; some experts have framed the issue in terms of food deserts while others have focused on the surplus of unhealthy and fast food, which is most often a problem for urban areas. In these "food swamps," fruits and vegetables may or may not be hard to find, but fast food and cheap junk food is everywhere.

While the word choice suggests a disagreement about the root of the problem, both models center on the overabundance of processed food, scarcity of healthy food, and price disparities. Theorists in both camps agree that American families are being encouraged to buy potato chips and soda, not organic fruits and whole wheat bread. 

New experiences with food regulations have given us some insight into the effects of these price imbalances. In a recent study about New York's new law mandating calorie counts on menu boards, researchers found that the reform didn't seem to impact how many calories buyers consumed, particularly among low-income individuals. Instead, surveyed customers cited price over nutritional value as the more significant consideration.

The McDonald's menu is a perfect example. You can get a cheeseburger for a dollar, but a meal-sized salad costs more than four dollars. The salad may be better for you, but an average fast-food customer will choose the cheeseburger instead because it costs far less and fills you up more. What would happen if the salad were four times cheaper instead?

Reversing the Incentives

Recent efforts are aimed at expanding not only geographical access to healthy food, but financial access as well. Local communities are fighting to eliminate food deserts by increasing the number of urban gardens, farmers markets, and grocery stores, and are also investing in programs that incentivize buying healthier foods, such as fresh produce. 

Farmers markets in Minnesota have taken off in recent years, and existing public programs are adapting to make these markets more accessible to lower-income buyers. SNAP, the USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as the food stamp program) is now working with farmers markets to allow for EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) as payment. In the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis Farmers Market, the Midtown Farmers Market, and the Northeast Minneapolis Farmers Market already accept EBT as a form of payment. Minneapolis has also initiated the Healthy Corner Store Program, a small-scale effort to put more fruits and vegetables on the shelves of neighborhood corner markets.

Taking the effort to widen financial access even further, Blue Shield Blue Cross of Minnesota is sponsoring a new effort to match SNAP money spent on fresh fruits and vegetables. Called Market Bucks, the program matches up to five dollars in money spent at one of the participating farmers markets. These types of incentive rebalancing programs are encouraging, but lack the kind of funding necessary to create widespread change.  Public officials should take note and consider offering carrots along with the traditional sticks as they reform existing food assistance structures.

We need to develop strategies that flood food deserts with healthier food stocks and simultaneously increase financial access to nutritious food, recognizing that the pocketbooks of millions of families require them to choose based on price. Taxing fast food is regressive, but subsidizing healthy food makes the market more efficient by recognizing the positive external effects of having a society full of healthier individuals. Substantial health care savings, productivity gains, and a rising quality of life for thousands of American communities will make reducing barriers to healthy eating well worth the effort.

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