Group Aims to Improve Food at Pa. Corner Stores

Food deserts in Philly get a makeover. 

Posted: 01/29/2014 02:37 PM EST

From the outside, Carmen Medina's convenience store appears to be an oasis in the food desert of gritty north Philadelphia, from its bright yellow-and-white striped awnings to the fake palm tree sculptures on the sidewalk.

A glimpse inside proves the image is no mirage. The Indiana Food Market is part of the Healthy Corner Stores Network, which aims to teach residents about nutritious eating through grocery promotions and outreach efforts like cooking demonstrations.

Customers were recently offered slices of pizza made on-site with store-bought ingredients: whole-wheat tortillas, tomato sauce, part-skim mozzarella cheese and diced green peppers and onions.

"We try to get people to try a sample, and in that process we talk to them about eating whole grains, and trying out new things, and showing them where healthy items are in their corner store," said program educator Maria Vanegas.

Led by the Philadelphia health department and The Food Trust, the corner store initiative has enlisted about 650 of the city's 2,000 or so corner stores to broaden their inventory of fresh produce, whole grains and low-fat dairy.

The healthy products appear to be selling. Data collected by The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit dedicated to ensuring access to healthy affordable food, indicates store owners have reported profits on those items and expanded their supply.

Corner groceries are a critical source of food in many poor urban neighborhoods without full-service supermarkets. About 21 percent of Philadelphians have limited supermarket access, compared with 8 percent of the U.S. population overall, according to a 2012 study by The Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit that finances neighborhood revitalization in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Experts say many purchases made in corner stores - like chips, candy and soda - are calorie-rich and nutrient-poor, contributing to higher rates of obesity and related chronic diseases among low-income residents.

Yet people's food choices are influenced by what is available, said Dr. Giridhar Mallya, the health department's director of policy and planning. What if stores carried healthier options?

The Food Trust began working with the city in 2010 to find corner store owners willing to sell more wholesome fare. Some feared they'd end up losing money on unsold, spoiled produce; others said they wanted to offer better food but didn't know where to start, program senior associate Brianna Almaguer Sandoval said.

The corner store initiative offers four levels of participation. At the lowest tier, a store owner could get a $100 incentive to introduce four healthy items and receive training on how to buy, price and promote fresh produce. Higher-level stores get free mini-refrigeration units, special shelving and signage.

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(Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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