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Taking Stock of Northeastern Minnesota’s Food Environment

By Betsy Johnson, Extension Educator — Health and Nutrition

Staff members of Extension Health & Nutrition and Healthy Northland are collaborating to assess the food environment in communities, stores, worksites, and congregate housing sites throughout the Northeast region as a first step toward creating healthy food environments at selected sites in the region.

Healthy Northland, the seven-county regional Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) initiative, was one of four Minnesota recipients of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Community Wellness Grant (CWG). For the CWG, we are charged with assessing food access and availability, nutrition and beverage policies, and sales practices, i.e. promotion of healthy food choices.

Starting with my home community of Grand Rapids, we are visiting convenience stores, congregate and multi-family housing units, worksites, and educational settings to assess the availability and pricing of healthy food and beverage options, including vending machines. With help from Get Fit Itasca, Itasca County’s SHIP initiative, we are collecting information by city quadrant. With the help of the City of Grand Rapids’ GIS department, we are entering key indicators into the GIS system to use maps for education and action on healthy food access issues.

But the flow of data doesn’t stop there. As we’ve been developing our community protocols for northeastern Minnesota, we’ve been discussing the logistics of food environment assessment with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). As a result of these discussions, our assessment process is now part of a pilot project with MDH to use a standardized tool through the national GIS database, Counter Tools. Counter Tools was originally created to track the sales environment for tobacco and has been expanded to include healthy food access and other public health measures.

Counter Tools has past or present partnerships in the states in red.

Currently in Grand Rapids, we’re using Counter Tools’ paper onsite surveys for convenience stores and for vending machines. As this project develops and MDH finalizes its contract with Counter Tools, we’ll enter data from the paper survey into the Counter Tools online database. In addition, Healthy Northland is working with the American Lung Association in Duluth, which already has trained several Counter Tools raters, to conduct the retail survey in all convenience stores in the seven-county region.

Once the baseline environmental surveys are complete, I’ll work with each county’s SHIP coordinator to engage community partners and create goals and benchmarks for tracking progress on creating healthy food environments in selected sites. This project shows great promise for measurable impacts in our region.

For more information about Minnesota’s Statewide Health Improvement Program, visit About SHIP.
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