Olmsted County food insecurity team identifies first steps toward full pantries

Olmsted County residents without steady access to nutritious food will be able to help shape SE MN’s response in the coming months.

Olmsted County’s fledgling Food Security Coalition will analyze and recommend ways to increase food access in the area.

Early efforts to diversify the organization include providing stipends to members so people who couldn’t otherwise volunteer their time can join the conversation.

Anna Oldenburg of Olmsted County Public Health said the stipends will allow people whose jobs do not pay them to participate in the county’s work.

“The main goal currently is to build that foundation of trust and to make sure this group is inclusive of the communities –that we’re making these decisions together in inclusive ways,” she said.

Olmsted County communications specialist Rachel Wick said more information about that aspect of the program, including the size and number of stipends, will be decided in the coming months.

The first members of the Olmsted County Food Coalition will meet at noon Wednesday, April 27. Interested persons can contact Oldenburg at oldenburg.anna@co.olmsted.mn.us for more information or to get involved.

It’ll be a big job for anyone who takes part.

Matthew Gabb of the UMN institute on the environment presented takeaways from the 2021 assessment Wednesday.
Food insecurity is, at its heart, a racial and economic issue, Gabb said.

Over the course of the pandemic, food insecurity – at an all-time low since the 90s in 2019 – took a sharp upturn. There was some recovery in 2021, Gabb said, but notably, white families have recovered more quickly than Black and Indigenous people, and other families of color.

“There was a lot of talk in 2020 about COVID being the great equalizer, but we can see in food insecurity, COVID is actually widening disparities that already existed,” he said.

Part of the Food Security Coalition’s job will be to prepare for a steadily diversifying population by finding and fixing those inequalities before they become even more entrenched, Gabb added.

That’s especially important for Rochester, where 90 percent of Olmsted County’s BIPOC residents live.

The solution isn’t as simple as adding a grocery store in areas with little fresh food access, though.

Food insecurity intersects with car access and transportation, health insurance, SNAP benefits, poverty and income, and the percentage of renters who are considered “cost-burdened.”

And all of those measures play into life expectancy. Gabb pointed to a 24-year disparity in life expectancy across Olmsted County, with some parts of Rochester at the low end (65.6-71 years on average), and other areas at the other side of the axis (86-89.5 years).

Gabb also suggested that the coalition work with local farmers to strengthen access to fresh produce and integrate sustainable practices into community and backyard gardens.

A few Olmsted County programs received Gabb’s stamp of approval.

The Village Agricultural Cooperative in Northwest Rochester works with primarily BIPOC growers across five sites, and allows people to grow foods from their own cultures.

The community garden also helps maintain community gardens at local businesses and John Adams middle school.

The Rochester Public Library’s seed library also checked out more than 10,000 seed packets in the three weeks after its March 1st opening, Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick said – “an unprecedented year.”

The Olmsted County Food Coalition will meet at noon Wednesday, April 27. Anyone interested can contact Anna Oldenburg at oldenburg.anna@co.olmsted.mn.us for more information or to get involved.

RELATED: Over 5,000 packages checked out from the Rochester Public Library’s Seed Library | KAALTV.com

Gabb also saluted Byron High School’s B-Town Bistro, a student food truck that uses produce from FFA members’ greenhouses and vertical gardens.

RELATED: B-Town Bistro launches for the school year | KAALTV.com