FOOD DESERTS IN ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA

Legislation is pending at the Capitol to provide a $10-million-dollar annual grant to support a “Mobile Market”, a “grocery store on wheels bringing the food to neighborhoods in need” amongst other things. Developers of the Mobile Market, the Good Food Access Fund, are asking for a $10 million annual appropriation (that’s tax dollars) that they believe will “bring new grocery stores, farmers markets, [and] more mobile markets” and several other solutions they propose to help eliminate “food deserts” in Minnesota.

One of the primary goals of this legislation is to get Minnesotans access to healthier and more affordable food. The director of the campaign to get increased state funding said that this plan “would even benefit existing grocery stores by ‘being able to provide this capital to keep stores around.’” Their website also lists several other “healthy” goals including reducing the consumption of sugary drinks.

Apparently, this group believes you can lead a horse to water and make them drink -- meaning that if we drive trucks loaded with healthy groceries around neighborhoods, people (nearly 500,000 Minnesotans received benefits in 2014) armed with their SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly known as Food Stamps) benefit cards will flock to them and buy healthy groceries. And, in rural communities where there aren’t Mobile Markets, the state will start subsidizing grocery stores.

While small rural towns in greater Minnesota have seen a drop in the number of local grocery stores in the past decade, much of this corresponds with a decline in rural population. Yet many trends in providing access to fresh and affordable food all across the state are looking up – and all without government subsidies.

For example: Walmart Superstores are increasingly popping up in rural “population centers”. This allows rural consumers to have a wide array of choices at rock bottom prices. Another interesting alternative to large supermarkets is the proliferation of “dollar” stores. Recently, 77 Family Dollar stores have popped up across the state. These stores sell necessities like bread, milk and toilet paper and can serve as a go-between trips to the regional shopping centers closest to home. Other convenience stores are also proliferating across the state and offer an array of fresh fruit, vegetables and many other groceries at competitive prices.

But the biggest development occurred this past January when the USDA approved web sales for SNAP recipient. This pilot study will include helping SNAP participants make healthier choices which would be an easy algorithm for mega-retailers like Amazon to figure out.

In 2014, all 50 states participated in food/diet education for SNAP participants via the USDA’s generous ($400 million) program. While there is no guarantee that on-line providers of fresh food will have any better educational outcomes, this option could save Minnesota taxpayers $10 million dollars annually by not propping up rural grocery stores and buying more Mobile Markets.

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