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Our view: Food access remains worthy goal

Duluthians know as much as anyone in Minnesota about the barriers to buying fresh fruits and veggies, meats that aren't processed and other healthier foods. Thousands of us don't live anywhere near a store that sells groceries, other than gas station convenience stores. Some of us can't afford a car or aren't able to drive — or drive anymore. And not everyone can easily take the bus and then haul piles of groceries home because of small children in tow, physical limitations or other challenges. In 2011, Duluth's poverty-aplenty Lincoln Park neighborhood was even labeled a "food desert," a result of surveys and other research that showed a lack of easy access to healthy foods and grocery-shopping options.

Duluth is far from alone. More than 340,000 Minnesotans face distance and income barriers to getting healthy foods, and approximately 235,000 Minnesotans live more than 10 miles from a grocery store or supermarket, according to findings of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and Wilder Research. In addition, 53 of 87 Minnesota counties saw a loss in the number grocery stores per 1,000 residents between 2007 and 2012, as the Minnesota for Healthy Kids Coalition has reported.

Recognizing all that, last year, the same Legislature widely panned for getting little done did this: It invested $250,000 to create a Good Food Access Program to help launch across the state things like Duluth's Grocery Express bus service and other efforts to knock down those barriers that keep far too many Minnesotans from accessing nutritious foods.

With grants, loans and technical assistance, the program is positioned to help establish grocery stores in food deserts and to help create more farmers markets, mobile markets and grocery-delivery services. It also could be tapped to help rural grocers learn more about and better serve their markets or buy energy-efficient refrigerators and other equipment that'd keep produce fresher longer, save them money, and keep their stores open, which their communities critically need.

But the program needs funding. So its supporters are back in St. Paul this session, seeking $10 million a year. And they already have a bevy of bipartisan support.

"Funding the Good Food Access program would not only help increase access to healthy and affordable foods, it would help create jobs and new economic opportunities in communities in greatest need of those opportunities," Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, the chief author of the legislation in the House, said in a statement received by the News Tribune Opinion page last week. "The lack of access to healthy, affordable foods impacts Minnesotans of all ages who live in rural and urban regions alike."

The program, as Rachel Callanan of the Minnesotans for Healthy Kids Coalition said in a statement, "has the ability to make a significant and positive impact on the health and well-being of Minnesotans."

As true as all of that may be, $10 million a year is a huge and possibly unrealistic ask. It's at least as big as the goals of the Good Food Access Program are well-placed and are worthwhile.