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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.

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