Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Food Desert

This post is about a special kind of desert you may not have heard about, but a desert that is very prevalent in Minnesota.

According to the USDA, a food desert is defined as an urban neighborhood were residents don't have access to healthy, fresh and affordable food alternatives within a mile of where they live. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. This lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

The USDA estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts. More than half of those people (13.5 million) are low-income. The new upgraded Food Access Research Atlas is a source of the statistics

Food deserts cover 1/2 of Minneapolis and 1/3 of Saint Paul because while there is housing in the down town area, there are few sources of healthy fresh food. The Twin Cities suburbs around the foods desert areas may have as many as 20 times as many food shopping options. It is likely that the growing level of obesity in Minnesota may in part be due to this factor. In Minnesota 25.7 percent of our residents are obese.

Rochester has some areas such as the near in Northwest, Northeast, down town city core, and Southeast locations that fit the definition of a food desert. Most grocery options are concentrated in the NW and South of Hwy 14.

Until the Peoples Food Coop recently move to the urban village area south of the down town area, this area met the definition of a food desert. It is interesting that the Rochester Farmers Market is in the middle of one of largest food deserts in the city. Many of the summer regional farmers markets were also in very underserved areas.

This is worth contemplating in terms of where the city of Rochester zoning encourages grocery store development and where future farmers markets are placed. Even more so as Rochester becomes a "destination medical center" and the community continues to grow.

Reducing food deserts by getting better access to grocery stores and farmers markets, doesn't necessarily mean that people will starting eating better, but it should help. In addition we also need to work on more consumer education on food preparation and how consumers can lower food costs. Farmers markets are very adept at these types of  education because people are talking directly to the producer.

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