Response to staple food ordinance editorials

I teach a class at the University of Minnesota called “Cooking on a Student’s Budget.” It is targeted toward undergraduates who are learning (perhaps for the first time) how to manage and potentially improve their food intake by building skills and understanding of budgeting, nutrition and cooking.

Among many assignments I give my students, one is to go to a local corner store and try to find everything that they need to create a nutritionally balanced, whole food meal. At least 23 percent (or about 15,000 students) live in University housing where there is limited access to grocery stores. Feeding oneself from what is available at a corner store is a reality for many students, and certainly for many people throughout the Twin Cities.

Since the class began, it has proven consistently challenging, almost impossible, for students to succeed at this assignment. They have had little to no fresh produce or whole grain options. Imagine if you were trying to feed a family regularly with these limitations.

Rather than submit to a food system that penalizes small suppliers for being small, the city’s proposal to require staple foods at corner stores is part of a larger conversation that Minneapolis is engaged in right now to challenge and redesign a food system that is currently inaccessible and unavailable to many in our communities.

Lacking resources (financial or otherwise) does not mean that ours is an acceptable system, or that the solution lies in maintaining the status quo and counting on a highly processed, nutrient-poor, big-food-company diet to support our small storeowners.

The City Council has the depth of understanding to recognize that along with this proposal, support is necessary. That includes: healthy food merchandising and marketing training, free in-store promotional supplies, written reference materials in multiple languages, access to low-interest loans for infrastructure improvements and citywide promotions to generate community interest and demand for healthy foods.

Additionally, the ordinance will go into effect in April 2015, but the entire first year will be focused on education, training and assessing compliance without enforcement. This is a shift that is necessary to change our food system on a very local level. Ultimately, everyone in this picture can win.

As a public health nutritionist, an educator, an activist and a mother, I am deeply concerned about the state of our local, national and international food system. I am also thrilled that Minneapolis is on the cutting edge of policies and systems change that can lead to more access and better health for our communities.