In Minnesota hundreds of thousands of people live in deserts — food deserts. That’s the term used for areas where residents are both low-income and live more than a mile from a full-service grocery store in urban areas, or 10 miles from a grocery in rural areas. According to a report by Wilder Research, nearly 350,000 Minnesotans live in a food desert. More than 1.6 million Minnesotans of all income levels, 30 percent of the state’s population, lack easy access to healthy food, ranking Minnesota among the bottom 10 states in the nation for access to food.

“It is really a paradox,” said Janelle Waldock, Vice President for Community Health and Health Equity at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. “We are one of the largest ag states in the nation. We are the breadbasket. Yet we have fellow Minnesotans living many miles from a place where they can get healthy food. Combine that with the fast rate we’re aging, and the number of seniors who maybe can’t drive … It’s a very real and serious problem.” Blue Cross has been lobbying legislators this year working to create a food access fund that would help support people and communities with the hopes of bringing food deserts back to life. That could involve grants or loans for things such as refrigeration systems, bringing more fresh foods to stores or increasing transportation options for those in food deserts.

Food advocates hope to replicate a recent success in Duluth, where Blue Cross has helped Zeitgeist Center for Arts and Community bring food to Lincoln Park, a low-income neighborhood in the city’s west end. The effort began with a special “Grocery Express” bus that ran twice a week. That’s been expanded to a dedicated route that runs Monday through Friday, with plans to boost access across the entire system. Bins have been installed on every bus in the fleet to provide a place for travelers to put their grocery bags. Lincoln Park residents have also created a community garden and a farmers market, with a second community garden set to be planted this year, along with a greenhouse for year-round cultivation. There are plans for a similar system in rural areas that provide transportation to grocery stores, farmers markets, and other places where healthy food is available and easy to access.