Blank: The University of Minnesota is effectively a food desert

Dinkytown’s Target is the only grocer near the UMN campus — and it’s the city’s responsibility to change that.

Lew Blank

When we think of food deserts, we typically think of low-income neighborhoods left behind by the modern economy, not college campuses stacked with a mecca of ethnic eateries and upscale dining venues. But for students living on or near the campus of the University of Minnesota — including in Dinkytown, Como and Stadium Village — finding affordable, accessible groceries can be nearly impossible.

When I first arrived at the University of Minnesota as a freshman, I popped into the Target in Dinkytown to buy a small fan. I immediately assumed that the store served as one of many grocery options for students, a quick, convenient shop in a sea of competing enterprises with fresh produce and student prices. I would never have guessed that this small Target was the only grocery store within a mile’s reach for tens of thousands of students.

Although there’s no universal definition for what constitutes a “food desert,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified that, broadly, a food desert is “an area where consumers are ‘limited in their ability to access affordable, nutritious foods because they live far from a supermarket or large grocery store and do not have easy access to transportation.'” The United States Department of Agriculture concurs, defining communities as having low food access when a supermarket or large grocery store is more than one mile away from at least 500 people or one third of residents in a given census tract.

Under both of these definitions, those residing on or near the University of Minnesota campus are living in a food desert. The small Dinkytown Target is the only conveniently located grocery within a mile of the Twin Cities campus, but at about one-sixth of the size of a traditional Target outlet. Having a small Target on campus is convenient for select items in a pinch, but, with a limited supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, the Dinkytown branch was never intended to serve as an all-encompassing food provider for students.

Beyond the Target, grocery options are still few and far between. The nearest hub of supermarkets — The Quarry shopping center, featuring a Cub Foods and a normal-sized Target — is more than two miles from campus. There is no direct public transportation route from the University’s Twin Cities campus to The Quarry, which requires many students to lug grocery bags on two separate buses.

Alternatively, students could frequent Fresh Thyme — located a paltry 1.2 miles from campus — but only if they expect to fork over an arm and a leg for the store’s Whole Foods-style prices. Additional larger grocers like Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Lunds in NE and the Seward Community Co-op can be a 15 minute bus ride away, which is difficult when buying enough groceries to sustain yourself for a couple of weeks.

For those with a University dining plan, personal access to a car or stable economic wherewithal, this may not be a huge issue. But for others, it can be a fiscal and nutritional nightmare.

According to the University of Minnesota’s College Student Health Survey, 11.7 percent of students reported running out of food and not having enough money to buy more within the past 12 months. These alimentary ailments had a significant impact on their academic achievement, according to the report.

It’s clear that the Dinkytown Target is not enough and that students need a large grocery store with sufficient fresh produce near campus. And it’s on our city government to make it happen.

There are a variety of policies that the Minneapolis government can implement to help students access affordable healthy food. One option is changing the city’s zoning laws to incentivize full-service grocery stores, something that was highly successful when piloted in Philadelphia, Pa. 

The city can also use its budget to make a down payment on new grocery options and alter its bus routes to provide direct access for students to existing supermarkets, something that Duluth exemplified with its “Grocery Express” bus routes.

The University also has the authority to address students’ food insecurity. The University could add a campus bus route to The Quarry, for instance, or use its budget to create additional community garden spaces for the student population.

It’s undeniable that the Dinkytown Target is an inadequate grocery store for the student population. The City of Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota both need to make a bold and necessary investment to provide affordable and healthy food options near campus.