Friday, January 15, 2010
Healthy Corner Stores
As reported earlier this week by Ruby de Luna on KUOW:
King County Pushes For Healthy Corner Stores
"Most people go to a grocery store or supermarket for food. But for many residents in South King County, the convenience store is where they shop. Without a car or adequate bus service going to the grocery store is a challenge. So their options are narrowed down to fast food restaurants or convenience stores. King County health officials are trying to change that. A corner store in West Seattle's Delridge neighborhood could be a model for giving residents healthier food choices."
The Super 24 store on Delridge Way looks like most convenience stores. The shelves are stocked with chips, candy and snacks. Near the register the hot case is filled with corn dogs and fried chicken, fresh out of the fryer. Also near the register there's a basket of apples, bananas and oranges.
Singh: "I have 4 to 5 customers every morning they take bananas, they take apple. Those ladies they go office, they buy cigarette sometimes, but they take the fruit."
That's store owner Bhim Singh. When he bought the business in 2006, adding fruit was one of the many changes he made. At first he sold a little. But eventually sales picked up. Today Mr. Singh's produce offering has expanded. There are lemons and limes in the refrigerator. By the doorway a small bin holds russet potatoes, onions and ginger. Super 24 is not a likely place for produce, but more and more neighborhood customers are coming here for things other than snacks.
Singh: "Everybody know, if they go market, Safeway, they go I miss onion, I miss the tomato, they say let's go Super 24 and they find (it) here."
Mr. Singh is part of a pilot project by the Delridge Neighborhood and Development Association. The neighborhood group is working with Seattle–King County Public Health to help convenience store operators to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables. Maria Reyes is a Delridge resident and member of the neighborhood group. She says they're not telling storekeepers to stop carrying chips and soda. The idea is to give customers a variety of choices, healthy choices.
Reyes: "We're not saying we're going to come in and change your store; you're just going to have specific healthy foods. No. We're saying we're going to limit certain things and have healthier options also."
The neighborhood group also designed special labels that are posted on shelves to help customers identify low–fat or healthier food items. For many Delridge residents the ability to get healthier options is not easy. The closest supermarket is in White Center, a neighborhood just two miles south. But getting there requires a car, or a long bus ride. There are no walkable paths to the grocery, either. At the same time there are at least a couple dozen convenience stores in a neighborhood of 30,000 residents. That means their choices are limited to processed, high–fat, calorie–dense foods. As a result, Delridge and other low–income neighborhoods have higher rates of chronic diseases like diabetes.
Kreiger: "Place matters and where you live has an important influence on your health."
Dr. Jim Kreiger heads the chronic disease and injury prevention unit at Seattle–King County Public Health.
Kreiger: "We know for example that low income neighborhoods have less access to parks, less green space, there are higher density of fast food restaurants, there tend to be less access or fewer supermarkets per person in those areas. That then contributes to the higher rates that we see in those neighborhoods of obesity, diabetes and so on."
For years residents have lobbied for a full–service grocery store to serve Delridge and nearby communities. They even looked at starting a farmers market. But there are major logistical and financial hurdles to overcome. So public health officials and neighborhood organizers are working with existing corner stores like Super 24. The county provides technical assistance like how to handle perishable items and make sure foods stay fresh, or link store operators with potential partners. Organizers also want to help corner stores put systems in place in order to accept food assistance cards. Erin MacDougall is program manager of the county's Healthy Eating/Active Living (HEAL) program.
MacDougall: "These benefits require some new technology in stores — EBT card readers and eligibility from the store operator to be able to accept the benefits. So this element is one that we're very committed to because we know that many of the people with these benefits have very limited access to healthy foods and these stores are sometimes the only option they have."
The convenience store program is one of many health initiatives the county hopes to expand to other low–income communities. Recently it applied for federal grants through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.) One request is for $14 million for tobacco prevention programs, and another $20 million to address the county's obesity epidemic. Health officials will learn by late February whether the programs will be funded.
Singh: "Maybe that corner there, the microwave."
Back at the Super 24 store, Bimh Singh and Maria Reyes talk about adding greens. Question is where to put them.
Singh: "So maybe I can make big stand there."
Reyes: "We're in the process now of getting him a refrigerator. So we're going to get him a new refrigerator and put it there so he can put his healthier foods there."
Singh: "Like spinach, cilantro, those kind you know."
There seems to be enough demand to make it work. Singh says when he first started carrying fresh fruit and vegetables he sold about 10 pounds a month. These days he figures he sells 50 pounds. And it's not just the residents who rely on his store for fresh food. Singh says even the folks at a nearby pizzeria have come in when they miss their produce delivery.
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