In the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park, 85th Street marks the near-invisible division between two different living experiences. North of the line, the city’s population is whiter and more affluent. South of 85th Street, the neighborhoods are home to more people of color, more immigrants, more poverty—and more disease.

“We started looking at the data, and we found abysmal health outcomes for people in Brooklyn Park,” said Wynfred Russell,a public health expert for the nonprofit African Career Education and Resource (ACER).

ACER serves the large African immigrant population residing in Brooklyn Park. In 2013, the organization partnered with Hennepin County to examine the city’s health access and health equity issues, and to pilot innovative approaches to close the city’s racial health gaps. After conducting hundreds of residentinterviews and sifting through Census data, ACER and the county launched a ground-breaking Healthy Living Hub program that used creative strategies and a multi-pronged approach to get more people moving, eating healthy, and utilizing health care services in Brooklyn Park.

Eradicating the Food Desert

A review of grocery stores in Brooklyn Park showed that the northern part of the community had ample access to grocery stores, while the southern part of the city was primarily served by convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

We discovered from the data that south of 85th Street was a food desert

– Russell said.

With the high-level of poverty in the area, increasing access to fresh, accessible, and yet relatively inexpensive food was deemed a priority. The partners found that 9,478 residents in the study area were on Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP)food benefits, or other food support. But most corner stores didn’t offer fresh foods for purchase.

The Healthy Living Hub team reached out to the owners of all the city’s corner stores, asking them to carry fresh foods. They heard from store owners that refrigeration was a barrier—without refrigeration capabilities, the fresh food didn’t last long enough to make economic sense.

In response, the partners worked with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to create the Good Food Access program, a grant program that covers the cost of installing equipment at small food retailers to offer “affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods.” This program is available statewide and promises to bring healthier food access to communities across Minnesota.

Making Locally GrownFood Accessible and Affordable

One important source of local, affordable fresh produce in many communities is local farmers’ markets. Brooklyn Park already had a farmers’ market, but just like most of the grocery stores, it was situated in the northern part of the city. The partners explored launching a southern Brooklyn Park market, but found that space and vendors were limited.

Instead, they focused on removing the economic barriers to access at the existing market. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture stepped in again with another grant, this time to underwrite the cost of equipment and staffing that would enable residents to use EBT cards at the market. This was critically important given the large number of people living on food assistance in the study area. ACER and the county conducted outreach to residents to inform them about the change.

In the meantime, the nearby city of Brooklyn Center launched a farmers’ market even closer to the Healthy Living Hub area. The Brooklyn Center market also accepts EBT payment, and its proximity to the hub makes healthy food access even more possible for residents relying on public transit.

ACER and the county also developed community gardens on public land. They bought 12 inexpensive plots from the city of Brooklyn Park, strategically placed near large apartment complexes and churches. Parishioners and residents developed and managed the gardens with the support of the U of M Extension Service, creating a sustainable source of fresh produce for participating gardeners.

Hyperlocal Healthy Food Education

Although residents now had better access to fresh foods, the question became what could they do with those foods. The partners had made ground on food access issues, but none of the previous interventions had focused on individuals’ eating behaviors. To get people cooking with fresh ingredients, the team launched a Healthy Eating, Healthy Cooking program hosted atseveral local apartment complexes.

Residents who enrolled in the two-month long program attended weekly cooking classes, taught in conjunction with a dietician and nutritionist from the University of Minnesota Extension Program. Participants learned how to incorporate fresh, local foods into their daily meals. The classes even took a field trip to the farmers’ market and a grocery store to learn how to shop for produce on a budget.

As incentive to enroll in the program, the partners worked with landlords to offer a $75 rent rebate for residents completing the class.

Creating Connections to Health Care

There is adequate health care in the Healthy Living Hub area thanks to a Hennepin County Medical Clinic (HCMC) located on Zane Avenue, which is both centrally located and accessible by public transit. Interviews with residents, however, revealed that many did not know the clinic was available to any community member. To introduce more residents to the clinic, ACER and HCMC partnered to create healthy activity events that would draw residents in and connect them with health care providers.

First, they began hosting free weekly outdoor Zumba classes outside the clinic. The classes drew a crowd and were visible to passersby on Zane Avenue, creating a weekly reminder that residents were welcome at the clinic.

They alsoofferedfree walking sessions with HCMC doctors. Residents could sign up to walk on nearby trails, and were joined by a doctor who led each session. These walking sessions were designed to reduce any trepidation residents felt about seeking services at the clinic, while also introducing them to Brooklyn Park’s public walking trail system.

Encouraging More Active Lifestyles

Cardiovascular disease and obesity are among the most prevalent health issues facing residents in the Healthy Living Hub area. ACER and the county knew that it was critical to encourage residents to incorporate more daily movement in their lives. This required the partners to develop strategies for changing individual activity habits.

The Healthy Living Hub area already had parks and trails, but the partners worked with the Brooklyn Park Planning Commission to assess whether those amenities were accessible to all residents. They identified severalneighborhoods that needed better access to recreational areas. In response to this analysis, the city built a new basketball court and expanded the walking trail options in underserved areas of the hub.

Parks and trails are only useful if people know about them and are encouraged to use them. So, ACER and the county organized a community gathering at which people could choose their favorite form of exercise that utilized the trail system. Residents came out to walk, run, or bike five miles of city trails, creating a greater awareness of the amenities available to residents living in the Healthy Living Hub.

Finally, ACER took the lead in organizing Brooklyn Park’s first Open Streets event. Open Streets events are becoming a popular strategy in many cities to encourage walking, biking, skating, and other methods of car-free transportation. Organizers close major thoroughfares to motorized traffic, and recruit community organizations, businesses, and local government offices to come out, host activities or information tables, and connect with residents. The Brooklyn Park event was held on Zane Avenue, with hundreds of residents attending.

What’s Next: Working Toward Sustainability

The Healthy Living Hub was an extraordinary effort that used a small amount of public investment to generate major change in Brooklyn Park. Russell said that the next step is for government partners to invest in the program’ssuccessful strategies for long-term, sustainable impact. Although the pilotgrant funding has run out, he believes the Healthy Living Hub strategies should continue in Brooklyn Park and can be replicated in other low-wealth communities of color.

“We learned so much, and now we need to institutionalize what worked,” he said. “We can encourage individuals’ behavioral change if we invest in the systems change to support it.”

Metro Ryders

Metro Ryders, etc. is a light-hearted, recreational bicycling and physical fitness club powered by ACER and based in Brooklyn Park with members coming from across the 7-county metro region. It promotes cycling, rollerblading, walking, and jogging at all skills levels, and keeps the activities safe and fun.
The club encourages active living through physical activity and wellness in the northern and northwest corners of the Twin Cities and surrounding counties. MRe visits a different park and trail system each week with the goal of encouraging active living and exposing its members to the region’s abundant biking, pedestrian, parks, and natural assets.