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Letter to the editor: Food access program critical

To the editor:

Rural Minnesota residents face many challenges related to community vitality, jobs, new markets for agriculture and health. While there are no quick and easy solutions, there are occasionally opportunities to make positive impact. One current opportunity is to support grocery stores, especially those in smaller towns and sparsely populated regions of the state.

Hundreds of thousands of Minnesota lie in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture refers to as "food deserts." In these regions, people live 10, 15, 20 or more miles from the nearest store that sells healthy and affordable foods — namely grocery stores. This is especially troubling for those who have transportation challenges, including older adults.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that's getting worse. A total of 53 out of 87 Minnesota counties experienced a loss of grocery stores between 2007 and 2012. To make the situation even more challenging, a survey of rural grocery store owners by Minnesota Extension found that 62 percent of respondents intend to own their grocery store for 10 more years or less and the vast majority have no transition plan in place to help assure the store will continue to operate.

These facts are important because the ability to eat healthy food has a direct impact on the health of all Minnesotans. Grocery stores are also important economic drivers in small communities, creating jobs and serving as business catalysts. In addition, these stores are uniquely positioned to serve as farm to market gathering points that can potentially create new markets and income for agricultural producers.

Fortunately, Minnesota policymakers recognize the importance of doing something about this problem. Last year, the legislature created the Good Food Access Program, which will provide loans, grants and technical assistance to help small town grocery stores modernize and increase their efficiency, assist communities that have no store develop new food options, and create opportunities for producers to start or expand farmers markets. Just last week, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture announced that it was taking funding applications for the program. This year, the Minnesota Legislature is considering legislation to fully fund the program. Sponsored by a bipartisan group of legislators, the legislation has already received a positive hearing in Sen. Torrey Westrom's committee.

Rural Minnesota is always going to have its challenges but if we, as a state, work collectively to save our rural grocery stores and create other opportunities for residents to eat healthy, we can make important inroads in addressing some of those challenges. Strategic investments in effective programs like the Minnesota Good Food Access Program can help do that. I urge you to contact Sen.Westrom and encourage his support.

David Fluegel