A review of grocery stores in Brooklyn Park showed that the northern part of the community had ample access to grocery stores, while the southern part of the city was primarily served by convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

“We discovered from the data that south of 85th Street was a food desert,” Russell said.

With the high-level of poverty in the area, increasing access to fresh, accessible, and yet relatively inexpensive food was deemed a priority. The partners found that 9,478 residents in the study area were on Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP)food benefits, or other food support. But most corner stores didn’t offer fresh foods for purchase.

The Healthy Living Hub team reached out to the owners of all the city’s corner stores, asking them to carry fresh foods. They heard from store owners that refrigeration was a barrier—without refrigeration capabilities, the fresh food didn’t last long enough to make economic sense.

In response, the partners worked with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to create the Good Food Access program, a grant program that covers the cost of installing equipment at small food retailers to offer “affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods.” This program is available statewide and promises to bring healthier food access to communities across Minnesota.

Making Locally Grown Food Accessible and Affordable

One important source of local, affordable fresh produce in many communities is local farmers’ markets. Brooklyn Park already had a farmers’ market, but just like most of the grocery stores, it was situated in the northern part of the city. The partners explored launching a southern Brooklyn Park market, but found that space and vendors were limited.

Instead, they focused on removing the economic barriers to access at the existing market. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture stepped in again with another grant, this time to underwrite the cost of equipment and staffing that would enable residents to use EBT cards at the market. This was critically important given the large number of people living on food assistance in the study area. ACER and the county conducted outreach to residents to inform them about the change.

In the meantime, the nearby city of Brooklyn Center launched a farmers’ market even closer to the Healthy Living Hub area. The Brooklyn Center market also accepts EBT payment, and its proximity to the hub makes healthy food access even more possible for residents relying on public transit.

ACER and the county also developed community gardens on public land. They bought 12 inexpensive plots from the city of Brooklyn Park, strategically placed near large apartment complexes and churches. Parishioners and residents developed and managed the gardens with the support of the U of M Extension Service, creating a sustainable source of fresh produce for participating gardeners.

Hyperlocal Healthy Food Education

Although residents now had better access to fresh foods, the question became what could they do with those foods. The partners had made ground on food access issues, but none of the previous interventions had focused on individuals’ eating behaviors. To get people cooking with fresh ingredients, the team launched a Healthy Eating, Healthy Cooking program hosted at several local apartment complexes.

Residents who enrolled in the two-month long program attended weekly cooking classes, taught in conjunction with a dietician and nutritionist from the University of Minnesota Extension Program. Participants learned how to incorporate fresh, local foods into their daily meals. The classes even took a field trip to the farmers’ market and a grocery store to learn how to shop for produce on a budget.

As incentive to enroll in the program, the partners worked with landlords to offer a $75 rent rebate for residents completing the class.