The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Group aims to fight obesity by making healthy food more available at corner stores in Philly

  • Print

PHILADELPHIA - From the outside, Carmen Medina's convenience store appears to be an oasis in the food desert of gritty north Philadelphia, from its bright yellow-and-white striped awnings to the fake palm tree sculptures on the sidewalk.

A glimpse inside proves the image is no mirage. The Indiana Food Market is part of the Healthy Corner Stores Network, which aims teach residents about nutritious eating through grocery promotions and outreach efforts like cooking demonstrations.

Customers were recently offered slices of pizza made on site with store-bought ingredients: whole-wheat tortillas, tomato sauce, part-skim mozzarella cheese and diced green peppers and onions.

"We try to get people to try a sample, and in that process we talk to them about eating whole grains, and trying out new things, and showing them where healthy items are in their corner store," said program educator Maria Vanegas.

Led by the Philadelphia health department and The Food Trust, the corner store initiative has enlisted about 650 of the city's 2,000 or so corner stores to broaden their inventory of fresh produce, whole grains and low-fat dairy.

The healthy products appear to be selling. Data collected by The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based non-profit dedicated to ensuring access to healthy affordable food, indicates store owners have reported profits on those items and expanded their supply.

Corner groceries are a critical source of food in many poor urban neighbourhoods without full-service supermarkets. About 21 per cent of Philadelphians have limited supermarket access, compared with 8 per cent of the U.S. population overall, according to a 2012 study by The Reinvestment Fund, a non-profit that finances neighbourhood revitalization in the mid-Atlantic region.

Experts say many purchases made in corner stores — like chips, candy and soda — are calorie-rich and nutrient-poor, contributing to higher rates of obesity and related chronic diseases among low-income residents.

Yet people's food choices are influenced by what is available, said Dr. Giridhar Mallya, the health department's director of policy and planning. What if stores carried healthier options?

The Food Trust began working with the city in 2010 to find corner store owners willing to sell more wholesome fare. Some feared they'd end up losing money on unsold, spoiled produce; others said they wanted to offer better food but didn't know where to start, said program senior associate Brianna Almaguer Sandoval.

The corner store initiative offers four levels of participation. At the lowest tier, a store owner could get a $100 incentive to introduce four healthy items and receive training on how to buy, price and promote fresh produce. Higher-level stores get free mini-refrigeration units, special shelving and signage.

Last summer, Indiana Food Market became one of five stores at the top tier. Medina, the manager, got the colorful new exterior awnings, an eye-catching refrigerated produce case and a special display for whole grains. English and Spanish signs steer the mostly Latino clientele to healthier choices. And the market got a "Fresh Corner" kiosk for pamphlets, recipe cards and cooking demonstrations, where Vanegas made pizza in a toaster oven.

The program has been well received by customers, Medina said, noting they often ask when the food lessons are scheduled. Oatmeal, fruit and whole-grain rice have become big sellers, she added.

"People have started to buy new things and healthy things, and it's really great," Medina said in Spanish, according to a translation by Vanegas.

Shopper Sarita Falu said it's important for the market to sell fruits and vegetables, since many residents don't have the means to get to a supermarket regularly. But she didn't expect Medina to have people like Vanegas interacting personally with customers.

"I was very surprised that she'd actually have somebody here giving us that knowledge of nutrition," Falu said.

Mallya cautioned that it's too early to know whether the marketing effort is affecting consumer buying habits. But early data from two top-tier stores shows produce sales up 50 per cent and bottled water sales up 76 per cent compared with lower-level stores, according to The Food Trust.

The city has invested about $1.5 million in the program since 2010. The Food Trust could not provide exact numbers on its budget; several foundations and government agencies have paid for various aspects of the initiative, which has expanded to Camden, N.J., and the Philadelphia suburbs of Norristown and Chester.

Similar, smaller-scale interventions at corner stores in Baltimore have been studied by Johns Hopkins University nutrition professor Joel Gittelsohn, who found significant increases in the purchase of healthy foods.

He said the ideal solution would be to put more supermarkets in these communities, which are sometimes referred to as food deserts.

"But we're a long away off from that," Gittelsohn said. "Why not work with the existing infrastructure and improve it?"

___

Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Family of Matias De Antonio speaks outside Law Courts

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 090728 / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS White Pelicans belly up to the sushi bar Tuesday afternoon at Lockport. One of North America's largest birds is a common sight along the Red RIver and on Lake Winnipeg. Here the fight each other for fish near the base of Red RIver's control structure, giving human fisher's downstream a run for their money.
  • Horses enjoy a beautiful September morning east of Neepawa, Manitoba  - Standup Photo– Sept 04, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What are you most looking forward to this Easter weekend?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google