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Food Deserts: Jenna Carter Of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota On How They Are Helping To…

Food Deserts: Jenna Carter Of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota On How They Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options

…We have been helping to support a variety of community-based organizations in their local food access efforts. For example, we have supported organizations to expand Farm to School and Farm to Early Child Care programs, expand urban agriculture efforts and improve the availability of nutritious, culturally appropriate foods at food shelves.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options,” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jenna Carter.

Jenna Carter is the Public Affairs Manager for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. In the past, she has been involved with healthy food access efforts including the expansion of community gardens, farmers markets, CSAs, and healthy food shelves and corner stores. Jenna has an undergraduate degree in Nutritional Sciences and a master’s in Public Health Nutrition.’

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I earned my undergraduate degree in Nutritional Sciences from Iowa State. And while I was there, learning about nutrition education and one-on-one nutrition counseling, I was really struck by the fact that so much of the nutrition education and counseling made the assumption that people had a choice in what they could eat and what they had access to. I had lived in a small town where there was a little grocery store that barely could keep their doors open, and sometimes the produce wasn’t really fresh and often it wasn’t very affordable. Otherwise, we had to drive 30 minutes away to go to a larger grocery store. So, during my undergrad, I became more interested in learning about the broader food system, which led me to get a public health degree at the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. I have stayed in this lane of food access throughout my career, even as I have done more work within health care. I believe that access to healthy food is a human right because we each need it to live healthy and long lives. So, the fact that we have places all over our country where people do not have access to healthy foods — is an injustice.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Working on food access issues actually led me to run for elected office. I had been serving on the board of directors for our local food shelf, and clients were telling us that the cost of housing was driving food insecurity in their families. So, I became engaged in affordable housing policy work and that ultimately led me to run for office. I am now a council member in the fourth largest city [Bloomington] in Minnesota.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

First, I want to preface my comments recognizing the immense privilege I have as a white woman walking through this world. People of color, and specifical women of color, face greater challenges and have different experiences working in mainstream, often white-dominant workplace cultures.

With that said, for me, the tipping point was when I started to intentionally work on developing the confidence to trust myself, embrace my imperfections, and stop people-pleasing. I have learned over time, that for a variety of reasons, these are challenges for many women. We face a lot of barriers in society and in the workforce that make it difficult to feel treated equitably and to show up as our authentic selves. If I had to pick one specific moment in time that really changed me, it was after I read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. I started to challenge myself to recognize and own the value I bring to my work and workplace. I got really clear about what my values are, and I quickly realized that for me to feel confident in my work, I need to believe in it. I set goals and was unapologetic about wanting to achieve those goals. Once I started to have this mindset, it was kind of freeing and I started to see more success. Now I will say, it’s all still a work in progress, and I have down days just like everyone else. To keep moving forward, I do my best to carve out time for self-reflection and planning. I also take time each day for physical activity and am working to start a habit of daily meditation. Lastly, I want to add that I am very fortunate to have a supportive partner and close friendships with women who are incredibly empowering and challenge me to stay true to myself every day.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have had incredible women who have mentored me, starting from my first internship. When I received my first official job offer, the supervisor for my internship took the time to encourage me and tell me how to negotiate my salary and ask for more money, which at the time was incredibly intimidating. It’s been these mentors, these women who I’ve worked with and have become friends with throughout my career, who have coached and encouraged me along the way. They have been so helpful as I have figured out not only how to advocate for myself, but also how to navigate the complexities that arise in the workplace and how to manage the constant juggle of being a working mom.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I am a highly adaptive person. And maybe that’s partly because I grew up in the military, and I had to move every three years and adapt to new environments and situations, but I feel like that’s really helped me to effectively navigate different situations throughout my life. I also value meeting people and building relationships, and I do feel like establishing relationships is essential to doing powerful work. I would also say that I am highly driven and self-motivated. I am the type of person that usually has some big lofty goal in front of me and am working hard to achieve it. Lastly, I strive to be a good listener. I may not always agree with the perspectives that others bring, but I try hard to listen, be open-minded, and at times, put myself in their shoes and attempt to understand why someone would have the position or belief that they have, and see if there is a way to move forward and work together.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man In The Arena” quote really speaks to me. Whether I am trying to make a change in my workplace or in the legislature or in my role as a City Councilmember. It can be really difficult and painstaking at times. It can feel like one step forward and ten steps back. The naysayers and the critics can get very loud. But when I read this quote, it grounds me and inspires me to keep going.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

Simply put, a food desert is a place where people do not have access to healthy, affordable food. And these are in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Food insecurity is a consequence of food deserts. There are a lot of people who live in communities or neighborhoods where there are no grocery stores nearby. For some, they can’t drive long distances and may not have access to public transportation to get to the grocery store. In other cases, food may be available at a store, but if someone is working in a lower-wage job, they may not be able to afford the produce options which tend to be more expensive.

In addition, oftentimes in food deserts, the food that people do have access to are foods they can buy at corner stores, gas stations or fast-food establishments, and tend to be most unhealthy options. We know for people who do not have access to healthy foods but do have access to an abundance of cheaper and unhealthy options, they’re much more likely to experience both acute and chronic diseases, which, of course, personally impacts their quality of life, as well as has broader, societal consequences in terms of rising health care costs.

And then the third piece I would emphasize is that lack of access to healthy and affordable foods can cause mental health issues. When an individual is concerned about where they’re going to find their next meal, or how they’ll put food on the table for their families, that’s a huge stressor. If they or their children start to experience health issues and are unable to find the foods that will help them, that’s a stressor. This chronic stress can lead to despair, anxiety, and a host of other longer-term mental health issues. When you think about the consequences of not having access to healthy food options, it becomes obvious that it can be very devastating for families and communities.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

When you look at the broader food system, it’s really been consolidated into some bigger, larger corporations and farms, and in some ways that may bring about benefits, but it’s also meant that we see less mom-and-pop grocery stores, less of the community-driven food businesses, and less farmers growing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. So, that’s one piece of it: the broader changes in how we produce, process and distribute food in our country and across the world.

The second piece is that most often, food deserts are found in low-income areas. In urban areas, this is often neighborhoods that were segregated or redlined. And there are lingering effects from that. Communities that were in those neighborhoods, communities of color, had very limited access to resources and limited ability to build wealth. There was and continues to be little to no investment in previously redlined neighborhoods which has resulted in less community infrastructure and development, like grocery stores. So, there are policies that were put into place decades ago that still have ripple effects to this day. In many low-income rural communities, declining population numbers, aging retail infrastructure and the slim profit margins of grocery stores, present challenges for them to keep their doors open.

Lastly, food deserts are prevalent on many American Indian reservations. The reasons are pretty vast and complex. The first that comes to mind for me is the forced removal of Native peoples from their lands to reservations that were created in less desirable and often isolated areas. I do want to emphasize however, there is a lot of really powerful work happening among tribal communities to work toward food sovereignty and reclaiming their traditional food systems.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

A couple of years ago, I co-led a campaign to bring a Healthy Food Financing Initiative to Minnesota. The intent was to leverage public and private resources to support healthy food retailers in census-designated food deserts. We were able to pass that legislation and get a program established, which now resides in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. They have given over a million dollars in grants to retailers across the state. We intentionally developed the program so that when we say healthy food retailer, it’s a broad term and doesn’t have to be a typical grocery store. It could be a mobile market or a farmers’ market or a grocery delivery van. The resources have also gone to support retail establishments who might be in older grocery buildings, using very outdated equipment and just needing support to get new refrigeration equipment, so that they can keep those fresh, healthy foods in stock and not face that barrier of cost, because, again, the profit margins are so low.

In addition, through the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, we have been helping to support a variety of community-based organizations in their local food access efforts. For example, we have supported organizations to expand Farm to School and Farm to Early Child Care programs, expand urban agriculture efforts and improve the availability of nutritious, culturally appropriate foods at food shelves.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I am part of a coalition called Partners to End Hunger, and I have been most proud of the work we’re doing around school food. For many years, the coalition has been working to end lunch-shaming in Minnesota. Lunch-shaming can be stamped on hands that means a child has an unpaid lunch balance. It can be giving kids cheese sandwiches instead of giving them the hot meal. Or we’ve had situations in Minnesota where lunches have literally been dumped into a bucket at the cash register.

So, a few years back legislation was passed to end lunch-shaming practices, but it wasn’t specific of what constitutes lunch-shaming, so the practices continued. This past year, the coalition went back to the legislature to get that language cleaned up, so that it was very specific. Now that coalition has launched a Healthy Hunger-Free Schools campaign advocating for universal school meals which would mean all kids eat for free as part of the school day. We don’t make kids pay for counseling, or busing, or books, so, why do we make them pay for the food that is obviously required and necessary for them to be able to learn? We know that kids who have adequate nutrition are not only better learners, but they also have better attendance, less behavioral issues and better overall health.

When the pandemic hit, the USDA approved waivers to allow all kids to eat for free as part of the public school day. As a result, school districts across the country have demonstrated that we can do this and there are benefits. Lastly, we know we have many children who fall through the cracks in Minnesota. Approximately one in four food-insecure children do not actually meet the income guidelines for free and reduced-priced lunch, so it’s critically important to pass universal meals, and I couldn’t be prouder to be part of this effort.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

There are so many issues that intersect with healthy food access. You can’t solve it by focusing solely on getting food in people’s mouths. We have great food shelves and great businesses that are working hard to do that, but we really have to take a more holistic approach to the issue. One thing that’s happening in cities across the country is that they’re declaring racism a public health crisis and then looking at the social determinants of health where so many inequities exist — from food access to health care to income inequality to public safety to education — looking at core issues in a community, and then working with the community to figure out specific ways to address those inequities. Other specific policies that could improve food access would be providing people living wages, improving the public transportation infrastructure, creating more economic development incentives for healthy food retailers who are trying to open in areas that might be lower income or have low food access, and making sure that our local food shelves are providing clients with healthy and culturally appropriate foods.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

Yes. We are fortunate to have many incredible organizations and leaders in Minnesota who are doing powerful work at the community level and statewide. To name a few: Appetite For Change has mobilized youth in North Minneapolis to advocate for and increase healthy food access in their community, Dream of Wild Health is a Native American led organization addressing food deserts by working on food sovereignty projects in the Native American community, the University of Minnesota Extension has worked statewide to put together local food networks where people can come together to address food access challenges specific to their community, and Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio (CLUES) is engaging rural and urban Latinx families around SNAP benefits and creating food distribution efforts with a new food delivery truck. What’s so impressive is the innovation and the creativity of organizations and their commitment to really work with their communities to figure out what is going to work best for their community.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

Paying people living wages and universal school meals would be the two that I would pick.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊

Food is essential. It’s essential to life and it’s central to so many families and cultures. It’s such a critical part of our day. And for those of us who don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from or where we can buy healthy foods, it may not seem as big of an issue, but we have millions and millions of people across the country who are experiencing food insecurity on a daily basis. We need to start treating it like the human rights issue that it is and start addressing the systemic issues in our food and economic systems that continue to perpetuate this crisis.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 😊

I would say, Michelle Obama. When I was starting off in my career, she was beginning her time as First Lady in the White House and launching a variety of healthy food initiatives. She really spearheaded the work to make school food healthier and brought so much attention to the issue of food insecurity, lack of access to healthy foods, and the resulting poor health outcomes we were seeing across the country. She truly inspired me then and continues to this day. So I would love to hear what she sees now as the most critical lever we need to pull to really address these issues in our communities.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can visit Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota’s Center for Prevention website.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.


Food Deserts: Jenna Carter Of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota On How They Are Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.