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For the past 10 years, the Philadelphia-based Food Trust has been building a network of partners in its home city. The owners of corner stores who, with the organization’s help, are bringing more fruits, veggies, and other smart food choices to their neighborhoods.
And it’s paying off. A new report produced by the Food Trust has found that these efforts result in healthier options for consumers, healthier businesses and healthier communities.
The Food Trust and its partners work with their network of hundreds of corner store owners to expand their offerings of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and healthy snacks. Owners who reach their goals in earlier stages of the program are eligible for further help to spruce up their stores, including the installation of “Fresh Corner” kiosks that display fruits and vegetables prominently.
Among the report’s findings:
Prevent Obesity Leader Brianna Sandoval, associate director of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, explained that the project grew out of the Food Trust’s nutrition education work in Philadelphia’s public school system: “Kids were still bringing lots of junk food from nearby corner stores into the school. We thought, is there something we can do about this?”
The Food Trust talked with corner store owners to get a sense of the challenges they faced, and the program began in 2004 with a small number of pilot stores. “When we got started, we were just trying to figure out: Is this something stores would even do, and how can we get them to do it?” Sandoval explained. Working in partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Health’s Healthy Philly initiative, the Food Trust has expanded the program to all corners of the city.
“When we did the citywide thing we had no idea whether it would work. We were thrilled to find that, one, owners really wanted to stock healthy products, they just didn’t know how to get started, and, two, once they start introducing new inventory they see it’s not as big a risk as they were thinking,” Sandoval says. “Then they, on their own, started introducing more healthy products.”
Not only has the project improved shoppers’ choices, as the report makes clear, it’s helped store owners’ bottom lines as well.
“It’s not enough to just try from a public health perspective; it has to be a good business model,” Sandoval says. “Our program is really focused on making sure this is a profitable venture. If not, it’s not going to last.”
Store owners, such as Selinette Rodriguez of the Polo Food Market in North Philadelphia’s Poplar neighborhood, note in the report that their offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables have become a draw, as more area residents who come in for those are also buying other staples they need at her store.
The project works with owners to make sure specific items are the right fit for their stores, Sandoval says, as well as to implement new displays and store promotions and connect owners with small-business support resources.
Sandoval has been working on the project for six years and has seen it grow from the pilot stage to its current iteration, in which a network of more than 700 corner stores participates.
“I’ve had owners comment that [they] see the same people year after year, [and] they get heavier and heavier,” she says. “They feel bad about that. It makes them feel good that they can do something positive for their community.” She said the owners have become advocates for the various initiatives the corner store program sponsors, from recipe cards to in-store health screenings.
The corner store project and the idea behind it have spread beyond Philadelphia. The Food Trust works directly with stores in Norristown and Chester, Pa., as well as across the Delaware River in Camden, N.J., and consults with state officials in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, providing support so cities in both states can use the healthy corner-store model. The organization also shares its expertise beyond the region, as cities from New York to Baltimore to Washington have worked to implement their own corner store programs.
Sandoval notes that the project is just one piece of a comprehensive approach that is needed to improve community health. “While corner store work can be very positive, it’s just one of many strategies that can be used for improving the environment in the community,” she says. “This alone won’t solve the obesity epidemic.”
But it is a key piece of making neighborhoods healthier. “I’ve been amazed by the owners’ interest and concern about the communities they serve,” Sandoval says. “They want to be part of the solution.”
Donna Brutkoski authored this article.