Written by Jeff Johnson on December 11, 2009. Posted in General

County Leading Five-Year Program to Address Availability of Fruits and Vegetables

FOCUS!  That’s a frequent directive I give to my two boys after school. They are charged with getting their homework done before they’re allowed to play with friends. And it can be a struggle! “Dad, can I have the TV on while I’m doing my homework?” “How about if I just put it on mute?” “Can I at least listen to my iPod?” “Let me tell you about what happened at recess today.” My response always: “FOCUS! You can watch TV, listen to your iPod or tell me about recess later. Right now we need to get the homework done.”

I assume my sons are pretty typical young boys when it comes to this issue and that it will be a struggle for years to come, but sometimes I think my 8 and 11-year-old boys are much better able to focus than we are in Hennepin County government.

County government has many very important charges: Building and maintaining county roads, funding public safety, providing a safety net to the most vulnerable people in our county. Unfortunately, we often fail to focus on these important areas and go off on tangents, getting our government mitts into every imaginable corner of society.

We just voted on a great example of this last week: We have accepted a grant from a national organization creating a county program to help grocery stores, hotels and restaurants in Hennepin County identify and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But I digress, this post is dedicated to a more peculiar example (and, in fact, the example that convinced me to create this blog earlier in 2009):  Hennepin County is leading a five-year program to assess the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables within the county and, assuming we find a lack of adequate availability, then to somehow fix that problem.

The program is mostly funded by a grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, but there will be some county expense and certainly some amount of distraction to employees. More importantly, regardless of the source of funding, this is not something county government needs to take on. We need to focus on what is most important and, once in a awhile, say “no” to those who want us to do other things.  It’s called “mission creep” and Hennepin County has it bad.

In a nutshell, here’s the program: The county will lead a group of “stakeholders” during the next year to assess whether fresh fruits and vegetables are readily available to all Hennepin County residents.  If we find a lack of availability (and we will, as I was told by another commissioner that HennCo did this same study a few years ago and found produce availability lacking for some), then we will take the next four years to come up with a plan to remediate the situation and implement that plan.

The original description we received of this 5-year fruit and vegetable program included some of the following goals:

“Assemble a group of key stakeholders for the purpose of developing a clearly defined vision of, and goals for, creating environmental and policy change in the target food environment. The target food environment are those components of the food system in Hennepin County that influence access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Examples include: farmer’s markets, grocery stores, etc.”

“Conduct a food environment assessment of the target food environment for the purpose of identifying potential levers for change. This food environment assessment will systematically examine the range of community food issues and assets so as to inform decisions about future action.”

“Develop a comprehensive implementation work plan with the overarching goal of increasing access and availability of healthy foods in the target food environment through policy and environmental change strategies.”

After some criticism about the silliness of the above language, it was changed somewhat, but the proposal remained the same and eventually passed on a 4-2 Board vote (with Commissioner Randy Johnson joining me in voting “no” and one commissioner absent).

By the way, once we find that there are some in Hennepin County who don’t have adequate access to fresh produce – a group referred to as the “food vulnerable” in the proposal – what do you suppose the remediation will be?  I will not be surprised to see government subsidies to certain grocery stores or farmers’ markets or maybe a proposal for government-owned farmers’ markets.  Heck, the county already owns a golf course, pro baseball stadium, hospital and HMO.  Why not throw a farmers’ market or two into the mix?

I recognize that eating fruits and vegetables is important – and I make an effort to do so 3 or 4 times each day (even more if you count ketchup). I also recognize that there is a possible savings in government-subsidized healthcare if people eat less fast food and more produce. 

That does not mean, however, that government should take the lead on a 5-year program regarding fresh fruits and vegetables.  Government tends to get itself involved in every aspect of every corner of society, sometimes using the excuse that “someone else is paying for it”, whether it’s a different government entity (like federal stimulus money that falls from the sky) or an outside group (like Blue Cross).  Government does not need to do everything that anyone will give us money to do.

FOCUS!  Government needs to turn off the TV, put away the iPod and focus on providing essential services to the taxpaying public.  Let’s leave the 5-year fruit studies to someone else.

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