University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Root Causes

An innovative task force on the North Shore provides dental care to struggling families.

Photo by Bryan Hansel

With its co-op that stocks grass-fed bison and a folk art school where students can build their own Adirondack chairs, Grand Marais, Minnesota, has more than enough amenities to please its upscale visitors and retirees. What people passing through this charming town on Lake Superior’s North Shore may not understand is that jobs in the service industries that support tourism often don’t add up to a living wage for locals. Many of the area’s full-time residents work more than one job simply to pay the bills.

In Cook County, as well as the rest of rural Minnesota, a family’s economic challenges are visible in children’s mouths. Minnesota offers some of the lowest reimbursement rates in the nation to dentists for their patients who receive government assistance, which means dentists are increasingly turning away families on Medicaid. The problem is especially stark in small towns, which often lack any dental care options at all.

“We’re the only practice in town,” says Alyssa Hedstrom (D.D.S. ’04) who, after graduating from the University of Minnesota, moved back home to take over Grand Marais Family Dentistry from her parents—her father is a dentist, her mother is a dental hygienist. Hedstrom and her husband, Jonathan, renovated the now state-of-the-art office building to include an apartment on the ground level, hoping that affordable housing will make the practice more attractive to prospective employees. “Many businesses have hired staff only to have them turn down the position because they can’t find housing,” she says.  

Hedstrom is such a naturally optimistic person—she comes across as equal parts earth mother and high school cheerleader—it’s hard to imagine anything getting her down. But when you turn to the topic of children’s teeth, her smile fades. 

“Tooth decay is the most common childhood disease,” she explains. It impacts four times more children than early childhood obesity and five times more than asthma. Studies show that a lack of dental care can impact children’s speech, nutrition, and general development. Nationally, the Surgeon General reports that over 51 million school hours are lost each year to dental-related illnesses. 

Fortunately, dental challenges are highly preventable if children receive regular checkups and instruction on how to care for their teeth. That’s what motivated Hedstrom and Paul Nelson (B.A. ’71), a retiree who moved to Cook County in 1996, to launch the Oral Health Task Force in 2013. Nelson, who owned a Sioux Falls-based transportation company and lived in Minneapolis, became aware of the need for preventative dental care during a meeting at the local elementary school, where a young girl clung to a nurse’s leg because she was in so much pain from a rotting tooth. When Nelson asked what could be done to help her, the nurse explained that because the girl’s family couldn’t afford dental care, the options were limited to an emergency room visit and a prescription for painkillers.

“We discovered that children up here often weren’t getting any dental care at all,” says Nelson, who serves as the task force’s treasurer. “Many families couldn’t afford the services. Some couldn’t afford the gas it would take to drive to the nearest dentist.”

Today, the task force visits area schools and the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, offering preventative screenings and fluoride treatments. People between the ages of 18 months and 26 years old are eligible for two dental visits per year, where they can receive sealant treatments, cleanings, and X-rays on a sliding fee basis. 

The program has been such a success that the Minnesota Department of Health, the Minnesota Rural Health Conference, and the National Rural Health Resource Center awarded the task force the Minnesota Rural Health Team Award in 2017. The task force is expanding to serve a growing number of children in neighboring Lake County.  

And its mission, according to Nelson, is growing, too: “Now we have to educate people out of having cavities in the first place.”

Read More