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Ideas to improve access to healthy foods have local flavor

RENVILLE -- Southwest Minnesota is a leader in the state when it comes to food production.

When it comes to access to healthy foods, the 27-county region sometimes leads in the wrong ways, or does no better than average.

In many of the counties, the percentage of residents with what is considered "low access'' to supermarkets and grocery stores offering a good mix of healthy, affordable foods is higher than 20 and 30 percent, according to data analysis by the University of Minnesota Extension.

The same report using census and U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows the overall "food insecurity rate" is similar to the state's 11.5 percent. More than one out of 10 people in the region do not have the desired access to healthy foods.

A disproportionate share of those lacking access to affordable, healthy foods are children and senior citizens.

The hope of overcoming these challenges brought 28 people to the Renville Community Center in a second round of discussions on what the region can do about them. Anne Dybsetter, University of Minnesota Extension, told the Southwest Minnesota Food Network gathering on Wednesday that the ideas will be shared at a statewide conference Aug. 13-15 in Duluth.

Those attending ranged from food shelf directors and local foods producers to public health and education professionals.

The state of Minnesota is developing a "Food Charter'' to promote access to healthy foods. The Food Chrter a public, statewide conversation supported by the state Health Department, the Statewide Health Improvement Program and funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. See the website at for more.

The food access issues identified in the region by the University of Minnesota Extension analysis of census and various other data showed that the largely rural region faces many of the same issues as do urban areas. Poverty rates and low access to healthy foods are often cited as factors in higher than desired obesity rates for children and adults.

Many of those attending the discussion Wednesday believe the region should look to its own productive farmlands to address the issues. Proposals ranged from building a stronger network of local foods producers to looking at ways that more of the locally raised goods could be processed and kept close to home in a value-added endeavor.

Participants also offered ideas ranging from developing community gardens to community kitchens as the means to educate people and provide healthy foods to a larger portion of the population.

And, there were calls by some to become more involved in local, state and federal policy making on food issues. "Be at the table today, or on the menu tomorrow,'' said Robert Ryan, Bird Island.

More about the Southwest Minnesota Food Network can be found online at

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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