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Extension, UMD research sparks community action on Duluth food desert

Food grocery cart

The last full-service grocery store in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood closed more than 30 years ago, leaving residents stranded in a "food desert."

"I watch the increase in people, mothers with children, handicapped men and women walking by my house. [They carry] Super One bags of groceries many miles back to their homes. I have cried many times watching them struggle in the snow and rain …"

"It would be great to have a grocery store here. There are many low-income families here with limited transportation. Only expensive convenience stores without healthy food choices."

For years, residents of Duluth's Lincoln Park have talked about the lack of easy access to full- service grocery stores in the neighborhood. Then, in 2011, research conducted by John Bennett of University of Minnesota Extension and Adam Pine of University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) captured the conversation and put solid numbers behind the community's understanding of the situation. Now, their research is driving community action to find solutions to Lincoln Park's food access problem.

'Leakage factor'

One number that stands out in the Pine-Bennett study is $5.3 million. That's the amount of money the study authors estimate Lincoln Park residents spend annually at grocery stores outside the neighborhood. In economists' language, that's a "leakage factor."

"That's money going out of the community," says Pine, professor of Geography and director of the Urban and Regional Studies Program at UMD. "I think that was an 'ah ha' moment for a lot of people," he adds.

"People knew that food access was an issue, but they didn't know the extent," says Bennett, a Community Economics educator with Extension's Center for Community Vitality. "We documented the extent, and presented a picture of what the actual problems were. That kick- started a lot of activity."

Foundation for funding

Since a report on the Pine-Bennett study was published and presented, Duluth community groups have used findings to obtain funding for neighborhood planning and to organize efforts for bringing fresh, healthy, and affordable food to Lincoln Park (also called West End).

One such effort is the Fair Food Access Campaign, launched earlier this year by four non-profit community organizations, including the Healthy Duluth Area Coalition (HDAC). According to Lisa Luokkala of HDAC, the groups secured a $25,000 grant from State Farm Insurance for the campaign, thanks in part to the Pine-Bennett study.

"The report helped us leverage those funds to do more extensive community engagement work in Lincoln Park to get community buy-in for solutions," Luokkala says. "The value of the [Pine- Bennett] study is that it provided useful data and presented it in a way the community could understand. Plus, John and Adam were willing to come in and talk to the neighborhood about the study. They built relationships with us so we can take action."

Defining the problem

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as "a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store." Lincoln Park, located a few miles west of downtown Duluth, fits the profile for several reasons.

One factor is a relatively low median household income (MHI) of $34,847. That's $10,000 lower than Duluth's overall MHI and more than $25,000 lower than Minnesota's MHI.

More significantly, there is no full-service grocery store in Lincoln Park. In fact, the last major grocery store closed more than 30 years ago. Convenience stores, gas stations, and fast food restaurants are in the neighborhood, but residents must travel outside Lincoln Park to find a store with a good selection of reasonably priced, fresh, healthy foods. No part of the Lincoln Park neighborhood is even a one-mile walk from a grocery store.

"This is a problem because a lack of access to grocery stores is associated with higher rates of obesity and diabetes as people substitute available food for healthy food," the study report says.

Four study methods

The Pine-Bennett study combined Pine's extensive experience in survey design and methodology and Bennett's in deploying Extension's market area profile (MAP) and retail trade analysis (RTA) tools. Bennett also brought a good number of neighborhood connections to the work.

With assistance from Josiah Grover of Ball State University and Gina Hollinday of UMD, as well as UMD students and a local community group (Volunteers Caring and Patrolling), Pine and Bennett's research was completed using four study methods:

  1. A store inventory of the local shopping community compared the availability and cost of typical grocery items.
  2. A survey sent to 2,800 households collected information about local shopping habits. About 380 people (14 percent) completed the survey, and 160 of them provided written response to the question, "What would you like to change about food access in Lincoln Park/West End?" The majority of comments focused on the need for a closer grocery store of some type, improved access to affordable food, increased access to higher quality and diverse food items — or all three.
  3. Interviews were conducted with community member representing six community organizations, in part to learn what solutions had been tried.
  4. A market analysis of the Lincoln Park trade area was conducted. The analysis used GIS-based data to determine the community's buying power, consumption preferences, and residents' level of mobility. This data helped study authors estimate the amount of money leaking out of Lincoln Park to grocery stores in other Duluth neighborhoods.

As noted, Lincoln Park has a $5.3 million leakage factor — meaning residents are spending those dollars at stores outside their community's trade area. "It's not likely that a grocery store would be able to capture all of the estimated $5.3 million, but it could attract a good portion of those dollars if the store was an appropriate scale," the study report says.

The study also found that:

  • From 10-15 percent of the Lincoln Park population faces significant barriers to accessing healthy food — barriers that include low incomes and no cars. Residents sometimes take buses and cabs to full-service grocery stores, but those options add costs and are inconvenient — especially with small children in tow.
  • Many Lincoln Park residents frequently shop at convenience stores and gas stations, which are closer, but charge more and have a smaller selection of fresh fruits and vegetables than stores in greater Duluth. "While convenience stores can play a positive role in provisioning the local community, they are not playing this constructive role now in Duluth's Lincoln Park/West End," the report says.

Proposed solutions

Study authors proposed several solutions to Lincoln Park's food access problem, including the following. The community's hope is any or all of these options could be implemented:

  • Improving the convenience store: A small, neighborhood convenience store that stocks groceries and fresh vegetables makes sense for Lincoln Park for a variety of reasons, the study says. If existing neighborhood stores expand their selection to provide fresh produce and more moderately priced groceries, health and economic benefits would result. Stores would also need to alter their streetscape to better serve neighborhood residents who travel to the stores on foot.
  • Attracting a full-service grocery store: Full-service grocery stores demand a significant amount of space. Space for this kind of store does exist in Lincoln Park, but any plan for this site would require funds to improve the area's walkability and public transit system.
  • Establishing a food hub: Such a hub could distribute fresh produce from local farms each week to neighborhood institutions that, in turn, sell the produce to families with limited access to grocery stores. A food hub requires planning for important details, such as a space that is up to code for processing fresh vegetables and repackaging them for distribution.
  • Increasing transit access: Another option for increasing grocery store accessibility would be to work with local cab companies and the Duluth Transit Authority to improve access to nearby grocery stores, such as placing taxi stands and bus stops in more convenient locations. The report also suggests providing space on buses to stow grocery bags.

HDAC has enlisted Pine and Bennett to help the group look into the feasibility of these and other solutions with the aid of a grant from Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota. They will start that work soon.

Connecting community needs and University resources

It took years for the food situation in Lincoln Park to deteriorate, so things won't happen overnight. But steps are being taken.

As a member of the Extension staff, Bennett sees the Lincoln Park study as a good demonstration of how Extension fulfills its mission "to make a difference by connecting community needs and University resources to address critical issues in Minnesota."

Both he and Pine are gratified by the community activity their study sparked in Lincoln Park. "Solutions are difficult to implement without the research to back them up," Pine says. "Knowledge is power, and it's important to get solid data so people can decide what to do."

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Mary Vitcenda

Reviewed in 2012

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