There’s an inherent irony that a state that is agriculture-rich like Minnesota (ranking top 10 agriculture ), is also the seventh-worst state in the nation in regards to grocery access for communities, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and Wilder Research.

This imbalance creates a phenomenon that is prevalent in the midwest United States called food deserts. A food desert is an area, especially one with low-income residents, that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food.

These food deserts often lack food retailers such as supermarkets, local grocery stores, warehouse clubs, community gardens and farmers’ markets. The main difference between a rural and an urban food desert is the distance (> 10 miles) of residents from the nearest supermarket.

The Wilder Research study declares that 16 percent of the United States are food deserts.

In Southwestern Minnesota, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have declared Watonwan, Martin and Faribault Counties as food deserts.

This phenomenon adds a ton of pressure to local supermarkets like Collier’s SuperFair which stands as one of the only fresh food retailers in Watonwan County.

“This issue is why we started the Minnesota Good Food Access Program,” said Good Food Access Campaign Manager Leah Gardner. “We were thrilled that we got bipartisan support on the program and this program assists those communities impacted by being a food desert.”

Created by the Minnesota Legislature two years ago, the Good Food Access Program is designed to provide loans, grants, and technical assistance to help existing or new enterprises offer healthy and affordable foods in those locations that currently lack access to such foods.

These loans provide food retailers with a one-time appropriation of $250,000, as of 2017.

Collier Food’s was one of the eight supermarkets in the state to receive the GFAP grant in 2017.Their selection was contingent on a few factors: distance from surrounding food desert towns, the average age of the communities they serve, as well as the effectiveness of their proposal.

With the grant, Collier’s Supermarket doubled their produce case shelving from 44 feet of shelving to 88 feet.

“We were fortunate enough to receive a GFAP grant to retrofit our fresh produce case, which allowed us to double the amount shelf space available, enabling us to significantly increase our offerings in the fresh fruits and vegetables in both traditional and ethnic categories,” said Mark Collier. “We think that we can now meet our customers’ needs for healthier meal solutions by expanding our product lines.

Collier’s SuperFair is an anomaly in Southern Minnesota.

They have maintained a steady flow of business and retained a 56-year chain of command which is unheard of for most grocery stores. According to study at the University of Minnesota, rural grocery stores have a shelf life of 10 years, before either being brought out or closing down. This trend adds to what is an already dire food access situation in rural Minnesota. To illustrate this ‘grocery gap,’ Southwest Minnesota lost 9% of its grocery stores between the years of 2000-2016 according to DEED and QCEW. Despite facing competitions from stores that canned and boxed food items at a lower price and the advent of online shopping, Collier’s SuperFair remains vital due to their fresh food and produce. “Our mission has always been to serve the community, and provide the town with fresh food, and reliable and intimate service,” said Collier, who is a second-generation owner, taking it over from his father.

The lack of access to healthy foods impacts Minnesotans of all ages who live in urban and rural locations alike. Of the Minnesotans who face distance and income barriers to healthy and affordable foods, one in five are seniors 65 or older and one in four are children age 0-17.

Local impact

One of the most important things that the GFAP grant allows for is the diverse food selections available for people to purchase.

Watonwan County SNAP- ED Educator Beth Labenz said one of the most significant benefits of having the diverse selection of produce is being able to not only teach people about healthy foods but for them to also be able to buy those things at the local grocery store.

For example, one of the most common that Labenz uses as a sample for people is jicama which is now offered in Superfair which is a huge benefit. Jicama is a healthy snack which was not previously offered at Superfair. A healthy food option like this is now able to be bought at the grocery store.

Labenz also cited another significant benefit of the more diverse selection is that the store now offers pre-cut produce. Because often poor food choices are made when people are in a rush having a quick option for fruits and vegetables will likely be a huge benefit when it comes to people eating healthier.

With the grant's mission of being able to offer more culturally specific fruits and vegetables, this will likely help people of all cultures when making healthy food choices. One of the most important things when it comes to having more culturally diverse produce is that more people will feel comfortable while making food choices. Often people don’t feel comfortable buying foods that they are not familiar with, nor know how to eat or cook it. With a diversified produce selection at Superfair, it will likely make more people comfortable with making healthy food selections.

Another way in which the expansion of the produce section helps the community is allowing local students to not only eat foods in schools but also be able to purchase these foods at the local market.

“St James Taher Inc. Food Service works diligently to introduce new and interesting fruit and vegetables to the kids. It’s such a wonderful opportunity to have the kids be able to actually see those items in their own local grocery store,” said Abby Grove the Food Service Director for St. James.

Check out the full story and other local news stories  in the March 8 print edition of the Plaindealer