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An Oliver Twist Story in Minnesota: In Rural & Urban Food Deserts Malnourished Children Can’t Learn

Date Published: 07/27/2018

Author: Clarence Dodge

Imagine a nine-year-old boy we’ll call Oliver Anderson – the same age and first name as the plucky urchin immortalized in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist -- growing up desperately poor in a small farm town in rural northwestern Minnesota.

Oliver’s single mom scrapes by on low-wage part-time jobs in town, and sometimes finds seasonal work, but she subsists on an annual income near the official poverty level.   Surrounded by one of the world’s most abundant agricultural regions and food sources, she tries her best but cannot consistently put fresh and nutritious food on the table for Oliver and his two sisters.

Even if Oliver’s mother could afford more and better food, there is no store nearby that sells fresh produce.  She doesn’t own a car and there is no public transportation in the region. So she often buys whatever overpriced processed food she can find at the only convenience store within walking distance of their apartment.

Oliver is a fictional composite, but far too many Minnesotans, mostly in rural and inner-city urban neighborhoods, actually live in a “food desert,’’ meaning they live at least 10 miles away from a grocery store with fresh and  healthy food options.   (The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food deserts differently for rural and urban areas, 10 miles for the former and 1 mile for the latter.   A map showing statewide food deserts is available here.) 

The sad irony is that Minnesota typically ranks fifth highest every year among the states in the total value of farm products.   And according to a recent report by Wilder Research it also ranks seventh-worst in the nation for the percentage of residents living in food deserts.   That’s a whopping 30 percent of the state’s population, or 1.7 million people, living without easy access to fresh and healthy food.

“It is really a paradox,” said Janelle Waldock, vice president for community health and health equity at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, in a Star Tribune article on the Wilder study.   “We are one of the largest ag states in the nation. We are the breadbasket. Yet we have fellow Minnesotans living many miles from a place where they can get healthy food. Combine that with the fast rate we’re aging, and the increasing number of seniors who maybe can’t drive (and) it’s a very real and serious problem.”

Among the most important long-term consequences, food deserts represent a clear and present threat to Oliver and the health and potential of hundreds of thousands of Minnesota youth, and to the quality of our workforce. 

Brain Development and Food Deserts

Recent groundbreaking research tells us that  more than 70 percent of  brain development occurs by the age of three.   Research by the Urban Child Institute and dozens of other health and research organizations shows that lack of adequate nutrition will deeply affect that development, cognitively, socially and emotionally.

According to a University of Kansas study, students coming from Oliver’s socioeconomic background begin kindergarten far behind wealthier children in almost every measure of development.

The lack of nutrition as a toddler also affects the development of Oliver’s physical health.   Chronically malnourished youth suffer from two to four times as many health problems. As a result, Oliver could suffer from obesity, fatigue, headaches, inability to concentrate, and a weakened immune system that cause him to miss school frequently due to illness.

Fast forward to Oliver’s 18th birthday, and there’s a good chance that his potential has been squandered, that’s he’s under-developed physically and professionally, in trouble with the law, prone to chemical dependency, and  dependent on public social services in some form.  

How to Get Oliver “Some More”

In the Dickens novel, perhaps the most memorable line is when the plucky Oliver, new to the orphanage and after having been served a small ration of thin gruel along with all the other orphans, approaches the orphanage master, bowl outstretched,  and boldly asks:  “Please sir, I want some more.’’

Today’s Olivers are making the same request and so are his advocates.   And the good news is that many health organizations, education experts, social justice advocates and community development leaders are working hard on the food desert  crisis.   

These are among the policy options for state and local governments, businesses, community groups and philanthropy to improve food security and make it easier for Oliver and all families to eat healthier foods.

• Improve the affordability and quality of early child care public school nutrition programs. 
• Strengthen public transit like shuttle buses and light rail or improve access to grocery stores for transit users in urban and Greater Minnesota.
• Support alternative forms of accessing food, such as rural and urban communal gardens, food shelves, mobile markets, and produce trucks.
• Provide assistance for small grocery stores to upgrade their refrigerators.
• Work with restaurants to serve low price healthy meals.
• Provide public-private partnership financing to grocers wanting to build or expand in underserved neighborhoods.
• Help encourage co-operative grocery stores in areas where private-sector grocery providers cannot make a profit..

What do these policy options look like in real life?   Here are two case studies, rural and urban, one  in northern Minnesota, the other in North Minneapolis.

SproutMN  is a nonprofit organization, located in Little Falls, Minnesota, with a larger mission “to strengthen and connect local food systems in Central Minnesota.”   , Sprout recently launched a fund-raising campaign to buy a vehicle and create a mobile grocery store that regularly brings fresh produce from local organic farmers and other sources into every corner of the central Minnesota food deserts.  
BrightSide Produce is an economically sustainable business model that makes fresh produce more available in low-income urban neighborhoods. It was founded in June 2014 as a collaboration between the University of St. Thomas and Community Table Co-op to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to corner stores in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The core operation involves a team of neighborhood youth and university students who make regular deliveries to corner stores in under-served areas. In the summer of 2017, BrightSide launched its second location, focused on providing fresh produce to small food stores in National City, CA, in collaboration with San Diego State University. 

In a recent article in the St. Thomas alumni magazine about BrightSide, program participant Adam Pruitt described numerous salutary ripple effects on the local community and on outsiders making new connections, in addition to the obvious beneficiaries like Oliver Anderson.
“What we’re doing here at BrightSide is really making a change for the better,” Pruitt said. “It’s just a giant circle of so many different groups of people who are on opposite sides of the spectrum, but watching how they all come together under one entity, and work together, talk together, eat together, and even grow and change together, it’s just a really nice thing to watch over time.”

Clarence Dodge is a student at Sarah Lawrence College and is the Summer 2018 Redleaf Intern at Growth & Justice

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