Minneapolis has become a focal point for testing out policies designed to force people to eat healthier. Or else.
A law on the books, which voters may very well repeal next month, requires restaurants to prove that food sales make up at least 70 percent of their total food and beverage sales. The law also bans restaurants from serving alcohol to customers who are waiting for a table in the restaurant.
Earlier this year, the city council adopted a City Healthy Food Policy that mandates "healthful food in vending machines, in city cafeterias and at meetings with city-funded food."
The vote was by no means unanimous.
"I'm a little bit mortified that we have a whole staff team that spent god-knows-how-many hours talking about whether or not there could be carrots in a vending machine," said councilwoman Lisa Goodman.
These silly laws hardly appear to be outliers in the city. After all, Minneapolis was the first city in the country to adopt a law, the Staple Foods Ordinance, that requires many small stores—including convenience stores and gas stations—to stock fresh produce and other "healthy" foods. The city adopted these rules in 2008. Violators face fines of $200.
"Now," reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "city officials are looking to double down on their efforts."
The proposed rules would expand the stores covered under the ordinance to include not just corner stores and gas stations but dollar stores. They'd all be required "to stock 30 pounds or 50 items of at least seven varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables…. [and] at least 3 varieties of meat, poultry, fish or vegetable proteins, at least 6 containers of a dozen eggs, at least 192 ounces of canned beans and four packages of dried beans and lentils[.]"
Why is the city looking to expand the program? That's not entirely clear. It's certainly not because it's been a success.
For example, small pharmacy owner Justin Pacult reported in 2012 that participating in the program caused him to lose "about $1,000 in eight months."
Earlier this year, perhaps thanks to reports like that, Minneapolis reduced support for the ordinance. A Star-Tribune article in February indicated that "after seeing mixed results… the city is scaling the program back[.]"
Those "mixed results" include the fact that "stores on average were selling less than $10 a week of produce." At the inflated rates charged by corner stores—no fault of their own, as consumers are paying primarily for convenience—that amounts to a handful of apples per store.
To no one's surprise, "Minneapolis is discovering that improving diets in disadvantaged areas requires more than just putting healthier food on convenience stores shelves."
The state, which provides grant money to support the ordinance, has identified several challenges in implementing the law. University researchers also noted the same problems.
A 2012 study determined, among other things, this plainly obvious fact: "at least 2 key stakeholders must be satisfied for an intervention to last: the store owner/manager and the customer."
Among the many other equally obvious challenges the study identified was that Minneapolis store owners "reported that procuring healthy items in a convenient and affordable way was a challenge."
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded study concluded that "while increasing access to healthy foods in small stores is viable, interventionists and researchers working in this area must focus as much effort on increasing customer demand for healthy products as they do on improving store supply of these products for such interventions to be successful."
Minneapolis grocer Mohamed Wadi, whose market sits in a high-traffic area, tells the Star-Tribune that he's made money by selling healthier options. But he knows others, like pharmacy owner Justin Pacult, aren't so lucky.
"It's going to be a big loss for (smaller stores)," Wadi said.
What should Minneapolis be doing to ensure city residents have access to healthier food? Well, for one it could continue to get the hell out of the way of those who want to sell fresh produce.
"Current city regulations only allow portable stores to sell pre-packaged foods near senior citizen high rise apartment buildings," noted another Star-Tribune article earlier this year. "As a result, no one has opened a mobile grocery store in the city in recent history, according to a staff report."
My suggestion? Minneapolis can best improve its food offerings by taking its bad laws off the books. There's no need to double down.