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New Minnesota Food Charter focuses on access to healthy foods

Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota health commissioner, speaks about increasing access to healthy foods for all Minnesotans at the Food Access Summit held at the Lake Superior Ballroom at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Wednesday morning. (Bob King / 1 / 2
Yodit Gidey of Duluth, who works on the community health board for Carlton, Lake, Cook and St. Louis counties, listens to speaker Mindy Kurzer as she looks over her copy of the Minnesota Food Charter. The charter was launched at the Food Access Summit on Wednesday morning at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. (Bob King / 2 / 2

Too many Minnesotans can’t eat healthy food even if they want to, the state’s leading health official said on Wednesday.

“Too often, people don’t really have a choice,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said. “Yes, we can encourage them to be healthy, but if they don’t have healthy choices available, it’s really a false choice.”

Ehlinger was speaking in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center’s Lake Superior Ballroom at the launching of the Minnesota Food Charter, designed to guide policy decisions on food “from farm to fork.”

The document was nearly three years in the making, said Mindy Kurzer, a University of Minnesota nutritional scientist who was chairwoman of the charter’s steering committee.

Spearheaded by the Minnesota Department of Health and a coalition of numerous other agencies and nonprofits, it involved thousands of Minnesotans, Kurzer said. It was presented during the plenary session of a three-day Food Access Summit to a room filled with nutritionists, health workers, farmers, policymakers and nonprofit representatives from across the state.

Only four other states have adopted food charters, Kurzer said.

Jill Martinez, communications director of the nonprofit Hunger Solutions Minnesota, said Michigan’s food charter was the starting point for the Minnesota effort.

But Minnesota’s is unique in its focus on access to healthy foods, Kurzer said.

Ehlinger explained the issue in stark terms, both in terms of unhealthy eating and in the lack of enough food of any sort for many Minnesotans. He noted:

* Two out of three Minnesotans are either overweight or obese.

* The cost of obesity-related health care exceeds $2 billion annually in Minnesota.

* Sixty percent of deaths in Minnesota are diet-related.

* Visits to Minnesota food shelves are up to 3.5 million a year, double that of 13 years ago.

*Twenty percent of Minnesota families face hunger or food insecurity.

In seeking to turn around those statistics, the charter sets strategies in five areas: food skills, food affordability, food availability, food accessibility and food infrastructure — meaning producing, processing, marketing and buying food, and disposing of food waste.

In the area of accessibility, for example, it suggests placing bus routes near community food sources and ensuring that food stores and farmers markets are in places easily reachable by bus, bike or foot.

The accessibility plank is a response to “food deserts” — such as Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood — with no full-scale supermarket within a two-mile radius. In a column on the Opinion page of Wednesday’s News Tribune, Tony Cuneo of the Zeitgeist Center for Arts and Community and Lisa Luokkala of the Healthy Duluth Area Coalition highlighted efforts to address the problem. They include Lincoln Park’s first farmers market and the neighborhood’s community garden.

Kurzer called upon the hundreds of Minnesotans filling the room on Wednesday to be “food charter champions,” working in their communities to turn the strategies into action.

That’s doable, Ehlinger said.

“I have no doubt that if any state in the nation can achieve the goal of a prosperous, economically better food system that also promotes health and affordability for food, it is Minnesota,” he said. “And it is all of you, actually, who are going to make that happen.”

To learn more

Learn about the Minnesota Food Charter at Minnesota Food Charter also has a page on Facebook.