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Freshening the Food Supply in Minority Communities

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By Kenneth J. Cooper, Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com –

The rap on corner stores in low-income, minority neighborhoods is they’re high on prices at the cash register and low on variety on the shelves, except for candies, snacks, and just about everything else that’s bad to eat.

As unlikely as it might seem, a loose national network has set out to transform the tiny shops into part of the solution to the health disparities afflicting African Americans and Hispanics. Backed by foundation grants and government funds, including federal stimulus money, local organizations that have joined the Healthy Corner Store Initiative offer willing shopkeepers incentives to stock more fresh produce and share best practices on how to make fruits and vegetables sell well.

It is a hyper-local approach to bringing produce to urban “food deserts” that supermarket chains have largely abandoned for more prosperous suburbs. Stocking corner stores also costs less than city governments granting financial breaks to lure grocery stores back to the ’hood and barrio.

The local health activists and officials leading the effort say making fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains more available in neighborhood shops can help reduce the higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease that African Americans and Hispanics suffer. While it’s too early for measurable reductions in those chronic conditions, a study in Hartford, Conn. found an eight percent decline in junk food on sale at 40 participating stores.

The corner store initiative reflects a recent shift in expert thinking about the causes and solutions to minority health disparities. Rather than focus solely on individual lifestyles— each person’s diet, exercise, and medical care—activists are also attempting to treat whole neighborhoods that tend to have too few supermarkets and recreational facilities, and too many fast food joints and environmental hazards. One expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, David R. Williams, argues the clustering of such conditions in racially- or ethnically-segregated neighborhoods is the “fundamental cause” of disparities.

Philadelphia is a forerunner in transforming corner stores. There the nonprofit Food Trust began making grants in 2001 to store owners to buy refrigerated coolers for fresh fruit and vegetables. One Hispanic shopkeeper in North Philadelphia, who received $60,000 to renovate his convenience store in 2008, reported a sudden 40 percent increase in business, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

The need in Philadelphia was apparent. A 2000 study found the city had the second fewest supermarkets per capita among major cities, after Boston. The Food Trust hasn’t given up on attracting chain grocers, though, even as it has worked with corner stores. A public-private partnership it joined has leveraged financial incentives to open some supermarkets in Philadelphia.

About 500 of the city’s corner stores, including some Hispanic-owned ones known as bodegas, have joined the initiative. That sounds like a big number, but the city has an estimated 2,500 neighborhood stores. The current plan is to expand participation to 1,000.

The initiative has spread from Philadelphia across the country, including The Bronx in New York, Newark, Cleveland, Chicago, Louisville, Ky. and Oakland, Calif. In the last several years, the idea has grown in popularity and prompted more than 500 online inquiries to the Healthy Corner Store Initiative.

The federal stimulus bill has made new funding available through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. However, not all of what’s needed to persuade corner stores to sell fruits and vegetables takes a lot of money. Activists and food consultants advise owners to place fruits and vegetables in front of the store, display unrefrigerated produce in attractive baskets instead of cardboard boxes and avoid putting too close together certain vegetables that cause each other to spoil faster.

Boston has recently joined the nationwide initiative, recruiting a handful of corner stores in the mostly Black neighborhood of Mattapan and heavily Hispanic East Boston. Collaborating are the Boston Public Health Commission, which has a $2.4 million grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a community group in each neighborhood and a citywide health alliance the commission has formed. The project goes by the catchy name, “Healthy on the Block.”

A 2009 survey conducted in six Boston neighborhoods, including Mattapan and East Boston, found that most corner stores do stock a limited supply of produce, says Rebecca Franckle, the project director. But, the fresh food turns over slowly and sustains high spoilage rates. “Some of the store owners we talked to consider it a cost of business,” she says.

Mattapan is Boston’s only neighborhood without a chain supermarket. Another survey identified more than 14 corner stores in the neighborhood, but only two on Blue Hill Avenue, a main drag, signed up for “Healthy on the Block,” says Cassandra Cato-Louis, neighborhood coordinator for the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition.

Asked why most corner stores owners in Mattapan declined to join, Cato-Louis says: “The first thing they say is, ‘People don’t buy produce here. There’s not a market for it.’ But, the kind of produce they have is the kind people don’t want. It’s old.”

Meanwhile, a survey of food shoppers who live in the neighborhood found that “the vast majority of them requested fresh food and vegetables” in corner stores, Cato-Louis says.

One store recruited has been stocking fresh fruits and vegetables since last fall, many geared to the neighborhood’s large West Indian population. More than 20 varieties of fruits and vegetables are on sale, some in plastic bins and others in a refrigerated cooler, to either side of the front entrance. The fruits include bananas, oranges, lemons, limes and mangos, while among the vegetables are potatoes, cassava, Caribbean yams and pumpkins, lettuce, tomatoes, and ginger.

Mama Supermarket, as it is known, doesn’t have annual sales anywhere near those at a chain supermarket. But, multiply sales of fresh fruit and vegetables at participating stores across the country, and a dietary problem behind some serious health conditions could start to ease—without providing public subsidies to supermarket chains not inclined to do business in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods anyway.

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, is a freelancer based in Boston. He also edits the Trotter Review at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

For Many It’s Gas – Food or Rent!

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By Jennifer Bihm, Special to the NNPA from the Los Angeles Sentinel –

Cleo Reynolds mumbled a few expletives as he watched the digital numbers on the Shell station gas pump. Unleaded was $4.15 last week and as he watched the price move up rather quickly; it seemed disproportionate to the slower moving numbers that showed the amount of gas he was getting. For a split second, he seemed taken aback at being asked his feelings on the amount of money he was paying for gas.

Then, leaning back against his SUV, arms folded, unlit cigarette dangling from his lips, he began his tirade. He was against paying $10.65 for a little over 2 gallons in his SUV that particular day and more so about the more than $100 he ends up paying weekly that allows him six days of driving. The Inglewood resident makes a daily trip to Los Angeles where his wife works, he told L.A. Watts Times (LAWT).

"At least $500 a month I'm spending on gas, it's ridiculous," said Reynolds who is 70 years old. "I drop her off. I go back to Inglewood, then I come back. I have to drive my truck because riding the bus for me is no good. It's too much crime."

Like Reynolds, others at the gas station had to briefly pause when asked about how much they're paying and how they felt, as if they had almost quit thinking about it. Some said they cut out extras like eating out. Others cut way down on shopping. While others like L.A. resident Dee, who was reluctant to give her last name, just quit driving. "I don't drive right now because my car broke down," she said. "[But] I'm actually finding that riding the bus has been a lot easier on my wallet and it's been less stressful."

All reported paying between $40 and $100 a week to fill up their tanks.

For his part, Reynolds said he frequents the food bank more than the grocery store for savings.

"There is no reason the gas prices should be this high," he continued with vehemence.

But experts say there are a myriad of factors that have an effect on gas prices.

How are Gas Prices Determined? "Gas prices will usually peak sometime in May," this year being no exception, said senior petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan. "This is because refineries are doing maintenance in late winter and early spring. By the end of May they're done and gas production goes full tilt."

Full tilt production and a high demand for gasoline in the United States seem to have a major impact on rising gas prices. According to the U.S. Department of Energy website, Americans make use of about 20 million, 42 gallon barrels worth of crude oil per day. Of each 42 gallons, 19 are used to fill up motorists' tanks.

Despite having enough oil in its own back yard to be the world's third largest oil producer, the U.S. also depends on foreign oil, mainly The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which affects gasoline costs. OPEC (Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela), which controls almost half of the world's crude oil supply can increase or decrease its inventory. Simply put - increase lowers prices, decrease raises them.

OPEC's monthly report for April 2011, cited factors like the unrest in Libya and the disaster in Japan as contributions to increased oil prices.

"Prices initially spiked in February with the onset of the supply disruption in Libya and concerns that supply outages could spread to other producers in the Mideast and North Africa," the report says. "Indeed, Libyan unrest has cut output by almost 80 percent..."

[Furthermore,] "Supply concerns, and the associated risk premium, were later dampened to some degree by the triple catastrophe in Japan: the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear problems, which has led to a persistent disruption in the Japanese energy complex. The overall impact of the tragic events in Japan on oil consumption is far from clear," OPEC's report continues.

"While the devastating earthquake caused a sudden decline in the country's use of oil, this is likely to be broadly offset by the need to substitute some of its shut-in nuclear power capacity with oil-based generation. Moreover, with the start of reconstruction efforts - currently estimated at $300 billion - this is expected to require even higher energy use."

Refining costs, taxes (which can determine gas prices from state to state or even city to city), marketing and distribution and gas station profits round out the list of gas pricing factors.

Myths and Facts

Back at the gas station, Jose (another L.A. resident who didn't want to give his last name) said he wishes that he could pile more money into his savings account but the hour long drive to his school puts a real dent in his wallet. He uses about $60.00 a week to fill his tank, he said. For people like Jose, the saving-money-on- gas discussion has become increasingly relevant and replete with all kinds of advice, as people try to find ways to keep more money out of the pumps and in their pockets. LAWT asked DeHaan to clarify some of the myths and facts.

One myth, he said, is that certain gas stations are better than others. "I wouldn't necessarily say there is higher quality gas but many different refiners add different blending components and additives, different detergents," DeHaan explained. "The government mandates that all gasoline has a minimum amount of detergent to make sure your engine stays clean. Some manufacturers argue they have more detergent (therefore) better gasoline. But, let's just say all gas shipped from refiners are tested for quality issues."

DeHaan also explained that yes, using the air conditioner and not making sure tire pressure is up to par will waste gas. However, he said, premium gas as opposed to unleaded is really a non-issue. "Buying premium instead of unleaded is a complete waste of money," he said. "There is absolutely no situation where a car needs premium. Now, premium is generally used in higher horse power vehicles or if you are towing. It (makes the engine) less prone to knocking. So, with heavier loads you want a gasoline that resists pinging a little bit more. Then you can avoid catastrophic engine damage when you're towing. That's essentially the only difference. But ,many vehicles don't require premium and don't need it so it's a waste."

Gas saving tips

Driving between 30 to 60 miles per hour, minimizing accelerating and breaking, and avoiding idling are a few steps consumers can take to keep gas in their tanks longer. Also, getting rid of excess weight (unnecessary bulky items for example) and getting regular vehicle maintenance can make the most of gas mileage. Finally, CBS Consumer Correspondent Susan Koeppen said that gas experts recommend buying gas early in the morning when it's cold and the fuel is denser, getting more gas into the tank.

Other tips include, combining trips, taking advantage of ride sharing, avoiding rush hours and driving a more fuel-efficient car, if possible.

Obama Seeks End to Oil Industry Tax Breaks

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By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON, April 30 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Saturday kept pressure on the U.S. Congress to end tax breaks for oil and gas companies, saying they were enjoying huge profits, as he sought to limit political fallout from rising gasoline prices.

With public anger over costs at the pump hitting Obama's popularity as he revs up his 2012 re-election bid, he pressed his call for rolling back $4 billion in "unwarranted tax subsidies" at a time of budget belt-tightening in Washington.

But opposition Republicans continued their efforts to cast blame on the Democratic president for a surge in gas prices that is straining Americans' pocketbooks at a time of stubbornly high unemployment and sluggish economic recovery.

"When oil companies are making huge profits and you're struggling at the pump, and we're scouring the federal budget for spending we can afford to do without, these tax giveaways aren't right," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address. "They aren't smart. And we need to end them."

Oil companies posted sharply higher first-quarter earnings this week with oil prices above $100 a barrel on unrest in the Middle East and growing global demand for energy.

Leading the way, Exxon Mobil (XOM.N), the world's most valuable publicly listed company, beat analysts' forecasts by posting a 69 percent rise in earnings to $10.65 billion, its biggest profit since the third quarter of 2008.

Obama insisted he remained committed to "safe and responsible oil production here at home" but said the money from oil industry tax subsidies would be better invested in developing alternative energy sources.

REPUBLICAN REBUTTAL

Delivering the Republicans' response, Congressman James Lankford of Oklahoma, an oil state, said Americans were looking for leadership in tackling gas prices but that Obama "has only offered a tax increase on energy and the prospect of reduced supply" and had smothered the industry in new regulations.

He said Obama's proposal to revoke oil industry tax breaks would be counterproductive, and vowed that Republicans in the House of Representatives would try to pass their own job-creating energy initiative next week.

"The president may think he's punishing CEOs of big companies, but his plan will hurt the everyday consumer of energy and imperil the jobs of millions of hard-working people in American-based companies," Lankford said.

But the Republican stance is far from uniform. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said on Thursday he supports cutting tax breaks for the oil industry in the search for ways to battle rising gasoline prices and close corporate tax loopholes.

Gasoline prices have become a highly charged political issue after pushing toward $4 a gallon nationally, and Republicans see it as a weak point for Obama in their efforts to defeat him in the 2012 election.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll published on Tuesday, 71 percent of those surveyed said gasoline prices were causing them serious financial hardship, while 55 percent disapproved of the way Obama was handling his job as president.

Obama has insisted there is no "magic bullet" for bringing down gas prices. But the White House is worried that if gas prices continue rising, the issue could drown out the economic recovery message at the heart of his re-election strategy. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

President Obama Promises Help to Rebuild Tornado-Hit South

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(Reuters) - President Barack Obama promised federal aid on Friday to the tornado-ravaged South after he got a close-up look at the "heartbreaking" impact of deadly twisters that killed at least 328 people.

"We are going to do everything we can to help these communities rebuild," Obama told reporters after touring scores of smashed homes and talking with survivors in Tuscaloosa, a university city in Alabama that was wrecked by the tornadoes.

Alabama was the hardest hit of seven southern states that were blasted this week by a swarm of tornadoes and violent storms that flattened whole neighborhoods. It was the deadliest U.S. natural catastrophe since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"I have never seen devastation like this. It is heartbreaking," said Obama, accompanied by his wife Michelle and Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. "This is something I don't think anyone has seen before."

In Alabama, emergency officials raised the death toll from the tornadoes in that state alone to 228. Governor Bentley said 1,700 people were injured.

At least 100 more deaths were reported across Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia and Louisiana.

"We can't bring those who've been lost back. They're alongside God at this point ... but the property damage, which is obviously extensive, that's something we can do something about," Obama said.

The president was eager to show that federal relief is on its way and that he is not taking the disaster lightly. His predecessor George W. Bush was fiercely criticized for what was viewed as a slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

Flying into Tuscaloosa aboard Air Force One, Obama and his family saw a wide brown scar of devastation several miles (kilometers) long and hundreds of yards (meters) wide.

Tuscaloosa resident Jack Fagan, 23, was glad that Obama saw the damage. "Perhaps federal funds will help us, but I'm sure it will take longer than they say because it always does."

Recovery could cost billions of dollars and even with federal disaster aid it could complicate efforts by affected states to bounce back from recession. It will place an added burden on municipalities grappling with fragile finances.

Tornadoes are a regular feature of life in the U.S. South and Midwest, but they are rarely so devastating.

NUCLEAR PLANT SHUT, INDUSTRIES DAMAGED

The tornadoes hit Alabama's poultry industry -- the state is the No. 3 U.S. chicken producer -- and hurt other manufacturers in the state.

It halted coal production at the Cliffs Natural Resources mine in Alabama.

The second-biggest U.S. nuclear power plant, the Browns Ferry facility in Alabama, may be down for weeks after its power was knocked out and the plant automatically shut, avoiding a nuclear disaster, officials said.

Apparel producer VF Corp, owner of clothing brands such as North Face and Wrangler Jeans, said one of its jeanswear distribution centers, located in Hackleburg, Alabama, was destroyed and one employee killed.

In Tuscaloosa, the twisters, including one a mile-wide, cut a path of destruction, reducing houses to rubble, flipping cars and knocking out utilities. The death count was expected to rise with many bodies still trapped under debris.

"We are bringing in the cadaver dogs today," said Heather McCollum, assistant to the mayor of Tuscaloosa. She put the death toll in the city at 42 but said it could rise.

Of the more than 150 tornadoes that rampaged from west to east across the South this week, the National Weather Service confirmed that one that struck Smithville in Mississippi's Monroe County on Wednesday was a rare EF-5 tornado, with winds reaching 205 miles per hour.

This is the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita scale that measures tornado intensity.

"The homes here are made well ... but when you are talking about a direct hit, it does not matter," Monroe County Sheriff Andy Hood said. "Right now, those homes are slabs of concrete. There is nothing left."

Across the South, many people were made homeless by the tornadoes and stayed in shelters. Some residents provided food, water and supplies to neighbors whose homes were destroyed.

Tuscaloosa resident Antonio Donald, 50, received help. "I got no light, no water. I have a newborn baby at home, a daughter who is pregnant and an 88-year-old aunt," he said.

The storms left up to 1 million homes in Alabama without power. Water and garbage collection services were also disrupted in some areas.

Alabama's Jefferson County, which is fighting to avoid what would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, suffered damage and 19 dead but said the storms would have little direct impact on its struggling finances because federal grants were expected.

(Additional reporting by Peggy Gargis in Birmingham and Colleen Jenkins in St. Petersburg, Leigh Coleman in Mississippi, Phil Wahba in New York; writing by Matthew Bigg and Pascal Fletcher, Editing by Laura MacInnis)

Brazile Urges Blacks to Support Obama, Protect Gains

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By Cash Michaels, Special to the NNPA from The Wilmington Journal –

The interim chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) says the nation, and specifically the African-American community, has to stick with President Barack Obama and the Democrats during these tough times to “keep the country safe and secure.”

But, in an exclusive taped interview Tuesday with the weekly radio program “Make it Happen” on Power 750 WAUG-AM/Power 750.com, top Washington insider and CNN/ABC commentator Donna Brazile also admitted that there have been times during the past two years when she didn’t necessarily agree with some of the president’s policies.

“Look, I haven’t always been pleased with the president of the United States,” the renowned Democratic Party strategist and interim DNC chair said. “I’ve had times when I’ve had to differ with the president. Whether it’s been the housing policies or the firing of [former USDA official] Shirley Sherrod, or just recently, giving the Republicans the opportunity [during the recent 2011 budget negotiations] to write their own narrowly-based social agenda on the [Washington] D.C. budget where I live, I’m not always in the cheerleading section.”

“Sometimes I’m on the sidelines, sometimes I like to be right there on the field getting a little dirty with the rest of them. But, the bottom-line is I’m proud to be a Democrat, I’m proud to be an American, [but] more importantly I’m proud to say that Barack Obama is my choice for president in 2012,” Brazile said.

It’s the kind of frank, pull-no-punches talk that Brazile, 51, is known. The first African-American ever to run a major political party’s bid for president when she took the reins of then Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, the Louisiana native has earned the title of Washington powerbroker, serving as DNC vice chair; managing her own D.C. consulting firm, hitting the talk and keynoter’s circuit at colleges and universities across the nation; and now chairing the Democratic National Committee until Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, is officially voted in, which is expected to happen shortly.

But right now, Brazile’s passion is supporting the president, and making sure that both he and the Democrats are successful in 2012.

“The country is still in the throes of a very critical economic downturn,” Brazile told WAUG-AM. “While we’ve seen 13 months of promising job growth, President Obama is committed to see that every American who is looking for a job will be able to find work in his/her hometown.”

Balancing spending cuts with “revenue attractions” in the midst of a slow economic recovery has to be a “balanced approach to getting our fiscal house in order,” Brazile maintains, countering the popular Republican mantra that America as “a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”

The poor and middle-class have definitely been hurt during the recovery, so government must do all it can to make them whole, as much as possible, Brazile says, particularly through job growth.

Brazile says the president “is committed to make sure that the federal government lives within its means,” and will make well thought-out cuts to the budget where needed.

But Republicans, per their plan to drastically cut the federal budget through Medicare/Medicaid, education, affordable housing, and other vital programs, while simultaneously giving millionaires and billionaires generous tax cuts, threaten the government’s social safety net where it’s needed the most. The trend is already being seen in local and state governments across the nation, and Brazile says Americans must take note, and then take action.

Brazile also urges communities to support President Obama’s insistence on “winning the future” through investing more in education, and for individuals to improve their own educational opportunities to better prepare themselves for upcoming challenges and opportunities.

“If you’re living on the margins; if you’re living without the means to dip into your savings account, then the recession we’ve just experienced will have a devastating impact on communities of color,” Brazile says, maintaining that communities should not be “pitted against each other” in times of great struggle.

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