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Community gardens are a popular way to enhance food security. Tammy Francois

Food crisis ongoing in the Arrowhead

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Hunger is a growing problem in Lake County. It isn't always obvious, but it's here. It's not a new issue, but the work being done throughout the state and the nation is becoming more visible. In Duluth last week, the Land Stewardship Project held the "Food Access Summit: Expanding Opportunities for Low Income Minnesotans." Activists and concerned citizens from all over the region, including the North Shore, attended the sold-out conference.

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The Summit brought people together from a range of backgrounds, including health, education, agriculture, and anti-hunger organizations. The purpose was to develop collaborative strategies to make healthy food more accessible to low income Minnesotans. Among the sponsors were the Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Department of Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, the Lake Superior Good Food Network, The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Hunger Solutions of Minnesota.

Phill Arnold, Director of the Two Harbors Area Food Shelf has been interested in developing local strategies for ending hunger in Lake County through these kinds of collaboration. "On the national and state levels, food is always on the chopping block, so to me, we need to look in our own community to find good food for people who need it," he said.

Efforts are being made to link local food growers with customers interested in buying their produce. Human service organizations such as the Lake County Health Department are engaged in initiatives like the Statewide Health Improvement Program focusing on creating wellness policies and action plans for the city of Two Harbors and its schools. One of the target areas will be healthy food in schools. Community organizations and community members are also welcome to share ideas for enhancing food security.

Thus far, community gardens have proven to be popular. The gardens allowed local residents to learn to grow food, said Arnold. One of the next steps is to engage community gardeners in learning about harvest, can or freeze their produce or fruits and vegetables donated to the food shelf, he said.

Some people only pick up canned or boxed foods at the food shelf, but since the food shelf is making an effort to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables, it is also providing recipes and samples of foods so clients have new ideas to try at home.

"People who are able to use ingredients and make meals from scratch, can make foods go farther, "Arnold said.

In recent months the phrase "food desert" has come into common usage. It describes an area where access to nutritious food is limited. In rural areas, like parts of Lake County, residents can be many miles away from grocery stores that carry fresh fruits and vegetables and basic ingredients for making healthy meals. This means that food options are often limited to items that can be kept on the grocery shelf for extended periods of time.

According to Hunger Solutions, a Minnesota non-profit that works to track and resolve barriers to food security, these food choices tend to be " highly processed items, high in saturated fats and sodium and excess added sugars."

The long term effects of this lack of healthy food are many. The Minnesota Department of Health names heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, dental disease and some cancers as chronic conditions that can be prevented with good nutrition.

According to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, "rural, low income and minority residents suffer the highest rates of preventable, diet-related diseases linked to insufficient consumption of healthy foods." But if access to good food is a problem, this information only serves as a painful reminder to those struggling to keep up. In the Arrowhead region, there are many struggling people.

Hunger Solutions publishes "Keeping Food on the Table," a quarterly report on hunger in Minnesota. It found that the Arrowhead region has been hardest hit by hunger. In fact, rates of child hunger were found to be at an alarming 23.4 percent--the highest in the state in 2011.

Food shelves in the region saw a 24 percent overall increase in visits between Jan-Aug of 2010 and the same time months in 2011. Distribution of food during those 8 months topped 5,748,796 pounds.

People who come to the food shelf are from all over the region including Finland, Isabella, Clover Valley, Silver and Beaver Bays. Some clients are homeless. To qualify to receive food, people must meet income guidelines, but information about income is self-disclosed. People are also qualified to receive food if they have experienced a disaster or emergency. The amount of food received is dependent upon family size.

Arnold and the volunteers at the food shelf try to "create an atmosphere that is welcoming and non-judgmental...we want people who come to the food bank to feel like it's not a stigma, it's okay," he explained.

Individuals and organizations are making progress toward developing strategies for local solutions to hunger. In the meantime, Arnold said, there is still need for volunteers and donations at food banks in Lake County.

To donate or volunteer, call the Two Harbors Food Shelf at 218-834-2280 or Silver Bay at 218-226-4443. To learn more about SHIP and how you can share ideas and volunteer contact Forrest Johnson at forrest.johnson@co.lake.mn.us

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