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Reporting on the Food Charter in Action event in central Minnesota

By Serdar Mamedov, Extension educator in health and nutrition, and Molly Zins, executive director, University of Minnesota Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership

Serdar Mamedov head shot
On November 17, 2017, more than 70 people representing different stakeholder groups in local and statewide food systems in Minnesota came together at St. Cloud Technical and Community College to discuss a very important topic for Minnesotans – access to healthy food for all.

Those of us on the event planning committee wanted to provide an opportunity for all guests to share about food access issues in their local communities in a safe and welcoming environment. One goal of the event was to raise awareness of food equity and access issues in central Minnesota. We also sought to strengthen connections among residents, decision makers and funding organizations to help them collectively address challenges related to accessing healthy food in their communities. Overall, the planning committee wanted to create a memorable, high-impact experience for participants that:
  • Promoted equitable access to healthy food by recognizing efforts of local “champions.”
  • Enabled discussion of the pros and cons of local food environments.
  • Connected people of different cultures to encourage them to act collectively.
After the Nov. 17 event, the planning committee asked if the gathering was able to address all the objectives and produce any impacts. Our event was planned and implemented with the primary objective of delivering positive social impacts. The event evaluation and personal conversations with participants indicated that the gathering, indeed, helped develop communications and social networks in local communities in central Minnesota. For example, one participant said, “I will continue to advocate and support rural grocery stores as a point of food access”. Many participants said the event helped them expand their professional connections and instigated further discussions about community issues around access to healthy food.

The planning committee believes that the event helped improve social cohesion in our communities. For example, a presentation from a local Somali community leader helped participants understand the needs of low-income refugee populations. Jama Alimad strongly emphasized the importance of working together to achieve desired outcomes such as health and economic prosperity. The planning committee felt that it was very important to provide a safe and friendly environment for people whose voices are not often heard in their communities. So we were pleased to find that over 84 percent of respondents indicated that they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “the meeting helped deepen my understanding about food access.”

Another positive social impact was the promotion of existing resources in our local communities. For instance, St. Cloud has many active Somali community organizations helping each other. The event demonstrated that many members of minority populations have great leadership skills and a potential to become local “champions” and “agents of change” in their communities. Specifically, proliferation of Somali grocery stores in St. Cloud is an example of leveraging community social capital to start businesses.

Social capital is a term that encompasses different features of community, such as networks, norms, and trust. Somali community members trust one another to act fairly, community leaders are highly respected, and social networks are organized hierarchically. According to presenter Pastor Kimberly Swanson-Buffie, if we want to create positive changes in our communities, we need to challenge ourselves with difficult tasks. She suggested simply starting something, noting that even a small thing can make a big difference in people’s lives. She also said we should recognize our potential to produce positive effects on the people and communities where we work and live. We should not forget that challenges also present opportunities.

In conclusion, we are not sure if the gathering met all stakeholders’ expectations, but engaging a wide variety of diverse stakeholders including elected officials was key to holding a successful event. There were a few shortcomings in the planning process. We will use the event survey to inform the planning process for future events. No event is perfect and there is always room for improvement.

Overall, Nov. 17 event was a good experience for both event planners and participants. One participant summarized it well, saying that “relationships are built on trust and work is done based on relationships.”
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