In Waseca County efforts are underway to increase the amount and availability of healthy food at at area food shelves.

It’s an important step toward ensuring that all Minnesotans has equal access to affordable, safe and healthy food.

The all-volunteer Janesville Food Shelf recently received a $175 mini grant to improve its produce displays from Healthy Together, a partnership of Brown, Nicollet, Le Sueur and Waseca counties, funded by the Statewide Health Improvement Program.

“The food shelf was interested in having a better way to display their produce, so that patrons would have better access to fresh produce, as well as allow for more produce to be stored and displayed,” said Megan Kirby, a Waseca County community health specialist who works with Healthy Together.

The grant also enabled the food shelf to add a white board/bulletin board that lists the produce available that particular day. Food shelf volunteers then post healthy recipes that use the produce. Patrons can take the recipes home, helping increase their knowledge of how to use the produce.

“While a small change, improvements like this at the Janesville Food Shelf are really a great way to start nudging food shelf patrons to make healthier choices. It’s akin to how grocery stores prominently display certain items on their end caps and in checkout lanes to influence the choices people make,” said Kirby.

Healthy food network

Janesville is just one of four food shelves in the county. The others are Waseca Area and New Richland Area Food shelves and the Grace Lutheran Church food shelf in Waseca.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Andrea Kronbach, a SNAP-Ed educator for University of Minnesota Extension in the southeast Minnesota area, approached Kirby about creating the Healthy Food Access Network to help open the lines of communication between all four food shelves and other key partners. Today, the network is comprised of directors from the four food shelves, Kronblach, Kirby and a representative from the Waseca Area Foundation.

The group has also welcomed school social workers since the food shelves support backpack programs which provide food on weekends for school children who participate in the free- and reduced-price school lunch program. Backpacks are filled with simple meals and food that can be easily prepared by school-aged children for school personnel to distribute.

“The purpose of the network is to build relationships among members to enhance healthy food access in Waseca County,” said Kronbach. “Everyone in the group is incredibly passionate about making sure all residents of the county have access to healthy, fresh and local food.”

The group meets monthly to discuss best practices and brainstorm ideas on how to help make the healthy choice the easy choice, such as Janesville’s new produce display.

Ty Morris, director of the state’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, recently visited the group and discussed best practices.

With the need growing in Waseca County, the food shelves themselves have grown, too. The Waseca Area Food Shelf moved into larger space in 2014 and the New Richland Area Food Shelf is remodeling its building to expand.

“There’s a direct link between lots of unhealthy foods and poor health, which translates to higher health care costs and lower work productivity,” said Kirby. “Our hope for the future is to work together on creating an even larger network of food stakeholders in Waseca County to help us ensure produce and other healthier options are on kitchen tables everywhere in our county.”

According to the Minnesota Food Charter, in 2013 there were 3.5 million visits to Minnesota food shelves, twice the number who visited food shelves in 2000. In addition, 20 percent of families with children face hunger or food insecurity.

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