Minneapolis is putting to the test the notion that people don't eat healthy foods because businesses refuse to stock them. So far, it is failing.
In 2014, the city passed its Staple Food Ordinance which requires all grocery stores—barring a few exceptions—to keep on hand fresh produce, and other healthy foods they were not devoting enough shelf-space to.
The law went into effect in 2016, but two years on, the city is not seeing any discernable increase in the amount of healthy food people are buying. Instead, its healthy food mandate is leading to frustrated grocers and reports of food waste.
"If I could sell the oranges and the apples like the chips, I will take off the chips and sell the oranges," said one convenience store owner to the Minneapolis Star Tribune in an article published Monday, adding that he threw away more of the fresh fruit than he actually sold.
Starting in 2014, a team from the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health has been trying to tease out the effects of the ordinance by conducting surveys of what stores are selling and what customers are buying in Minneapolis and neighboring St. Paul (which has no such ordinance).
Dr. Melissa Laska, one of principles on the study, says there has been an increase in the availability of healthy foods in both of the Twin Cities. The fact that this change is occurring in both Minneapolis and St. Paul suggests that it is not the policy that is producing the results.
"If this was specifically due to the policy, classically we'd be able to say Minneapolis [stores] are increasingly getting healthier in their food offerings compared to St. Paul," Laska tells Reason. "That's not what we saw."
Laska's team also interviewed some 3,000 customers outside targeted stores to see if the staple food ordinance was actually encouraging people to buy healthier foods. So far, it has not.
"We did not see any significant changes in the healthfulness of customer purchasing. We can't point to customer purchasing and say purchases are getting healthier as a whole," says Laska.
As to reports of food waste, Laska says this is something they've heard from some managers they've interviewed for their study, but it was not a universal complaint.
Total compliance according to the study was also remarkably low. Only 10 percent of stores were in full compliance, although large majorities were stocking at least some of the items they were required too.
That low compliance rate can possibly be explained in part by just how minute the requirements of the ordinance are.
The law requires, for instance, not only that milk be carried, but that five gallons be on hand, and feature at least two non- or low-fat options. Milk items not in gallon or half gallon containers do not count toward this requirement, nor do flavored milks.
It's a similar story with eggs. Stores must keep six one-dozen containers on hand. Six-count or 18-count containers don't count toward this requirement. Nor do one-dozen containers if the eggs inside are medium or extra-large sized.
Stores have to stock approximately 13 cans of beans, but baked beans don't count toward this requirement, nor do cans that mix beans and meat, despite canned meat being another required ware.
The prescriptiveness of the ordinance rankles convenience store managers who often don't have much space to work with within their stores, says Lance Klatt, executive director of the Minnesota Service Station and Convenience Store Association.
"Some retail food owners don't have a huge footprint. It's harder to expand in that category," says Klatt, adding that "we understand you have to have healthy food offerings. We don't like them being mandated and being forced down our throats."
These rigid requirements are a particular cause of grief for the city's ethnic grocers who're forced to stock foods that their customers' native cuisines have little use for.
"The implementation of it was forcing all supermarkets to sell a certain diet that really only pertains to certain people in Minneapolis, particularly Caucasians," said Eric Fung, the owner of Asian grocery United Noodles, to the Minnesota Daily.
The mounting complaints are enough that the city is preparing to amend its Staple Food Ordinance to make it more flexible and more inclusive of ethnic food varieties. City officials are still not abandoning the idea of mandating healthy food in stores, however, preferring to see their current struggle as a careful balancing act.
"How do we meet the public purpose that we are trying to meet in the way that also meets our other public purposes, which are supporting our businesses, making sure we are not perpetuating institutional racism or cultural bias?" says Daniel Huff, the city's environmental health director to the Star Tribune.
Yet when when the explicit goal of legislation is to change people's preferences, it's almost inevitable that this will conflict with people's culturally-conditioned dietary preferences.
And even if the law is written in a way that is more ethnic-cuisine neutral, it will still bump up against the homegrown American preference for convenience stores stocked with more junk foods and fewer fresh veggies.
This is an inherent tension in a lot of public health legislation, and it continues to pop up in food fights across the country.
Sometimes public health officials will try to square this circle by claiming that this or that population is being "targeted" by greedy corporations who've manufactured an artificial demand for unhealthy products. This was the argument used by proponents of Seattle's soda tax, and for menthol cigarette bans across the country—including Minneapolis.
The example of Minneapolis suggests that this relationship works the other way, that businesses stock products based on what their customers want. Trying to change that with mandates has, at least in Minneapolis, produced few observable health gains, and a number of upset store managers.