from our newsletter, broadcast on
Wednesday March 26, 2014
In recent years, an influx of food trucks, mobile markets and community gardens, along with healthy eating initiatives, have entered cities and lower socio-economic areas to encourage better nutrition and alleviate the staggering numbers of obese and overweight people in our country. Yet food accessibility in underserved communities continues to be on-going problem – a problem that can’t be solved by one method alone.
A new joint report by PolicyLink and The Food Trust, a nationally recognized nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food and information to make healthy decisions, indeed found that accessing healthy food is still a challenge for many families, particularly for those living in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and rural areas. This lack of access to healthful foods in disadvantaged neighborhoods has created what are known as “food deserts”.
The USDA reports that 25 to 30 million Americans – about 9 percent of the total population – live in these under-served areas without adequate access to healthy food retailers, such as supermarkets or grocery stores, within a reasonable distance from their home. Food stores tend to be located where the potential benefits outweigh the costs. These decisions, however, are affected by many factors in a complex way. Without the right development incentives to attract well-rounded food stores to under-served neighborhoods, there is a risk of perpetuation and higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses – which means that consumers who live in these economically disadvantaged areas are also at a nutritional disadvantage.
One of The Food Trust’s most successful past programs was the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (PA FFFI), a six-year statewide program (that ended in 2010) that attracted supermarkets and grocery stores to under-served urban and rural communities. The program financed 88 projects, bringing 5,023 jobs and 1.67 million square feet of commercial space into these underserved areas, which was no small feat (it is estimated that 24 new jobs are created for every 10,000 square feet of retail grocery space, so a very large market can generate between 150 and 200 full- and part- time jobs, says The Food Trust). But even with this influx of some accessible larger format stores in Pennsylvania, there is still the issue of the corner stores, which are frequent destinations for children, many of whom stop there on the way to school (53% of youth reported shopping in corner stores at least once a day, according to a 2007 Temple University study). Corner stores are a convenient food source in rural, suburban, and urban communities across the country, however, most of these stores sell packaged foods with few healthy options.
And this is where The Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative comes in. Piloted by The Food Trust in 2004, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative was created to motivate youth and adults to purchase healthier items through direct marketing in the corner stores, along with classroom education. Since its inception, this Philadelphia-based project has grown steadily, working to increase awareness and, most importantly, the availability of healthy foods.
“Partnering with corner stores to assist them in the transformation of their retail spaces can be an effective fresh food retail development strategy, providing residents with access to healthy foods while improving the economic viability of corner stores. Increasing healthy products in stores can also help stimulate local economies by creating jobs for local residents, capturing dollars that would otherwise be spent outside of the community, and revitalizing neighborhoods by serving as retail anchors,” says Brianna Almaguer Sandoval, Associate Director of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative.
But providing access to healthy foods is only part of the solution, says Almaguer Sandoval. Corner store owners need training and support on stocking and selling healthy products in order to ensure they are profitable and sustainable over time. Customer awareness of healthy offerings and education to help customers make healthier decisions is also another important program component that they address through in-store marketing, educational resources, in-store nutrition education and nutrition education for youth and adults in the community.
Clara Santos, for example, is a corner store owner in Philadelphia. She worked with the Philadelphia Healthy Corner Store Network to learn how to read food labels, distribute bilingual education materials, identify healthier items she could market, and develop healthy recipe cards using ingredients sold in the store. Because a corner store has limited space, highlighting healthier items can be a challenge, but The Network helped Clara by providing shelving and refrigeration to stock and display healthy food. Making strategic investments like these to expand business skills training for store owners, as well as investing in store equipment enhancements and upgrades to ensure profitability and sustainability, are critical to the success of small-scale stores, helping to promote economic development through improved access to healthy choices.
“Research has shown that you are where you eat, that the neighborhood you live in has a profound impact on the food choices you make. Expansion of healthy food retail in Philadelphia financed by the state initiative complemented multiple interventions, including healthier school foods, physical fitness, and nutrition education programs, to improve children's health. Philadelphia's health department recently reported a reduction in childhood obesity rates for the first time in 30 years. While a supermarket alone may not singularly reduce obesity, healthy food retail is an important part of the equation,” says Almaguer Sandoval.
There are more than 600 members of The Healthy Corner Store Initiative participating in Philadelphia. The Healthy Corner Store Initiative is also directly implementing corner store programming in Camden, New Jersey, and Norristown and Chester, Pennsylvania. Additionally, they recently began a statewide program in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and a statewide New Jersey program in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. While they do not directly implement in other parts of the country they do provide consulting and technical support to other organizations who are working on starting a healthy corner store program in their communities.
“Our vision for the future is that corner stores will become known as community assets in building healthier, more vibrant neighborhoods, serving as sites for healthy food access, nutrition education and community engagement. The work we’ve done in partnership with store owners so far is just the beginning of an exciting future for corner stores and for public health,” adds Almaguer Sandoval.
To learn more, visit The Food Trust and read Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters: A Review of the Research.