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Turning the Corner

news2Healthy market initiative takes aim at rejuvenating corner stores

Rather than the potato chips, sodas and candy one might expect from a corner store, chopped vegetables, yogurts and plastic containers of fruit greet shoppers at Vicky’s Produce in Watsonville. Candy bars have been relegated to a case at the end of the front counter, and healthier snacks like dates and nuts are now positioned closer to the register. Meanwhile, bins chock-full of fresh lettuce, carrots, bananas and other produce flank the entrance.

The store’s rejuvenated emphasis on healthier foods is all part of a new initiative in Santa Cruz County called the Healthy Corner Market Project.            

Removing barriers to healthy foods is key to combating obesity and other nutrition-related health problems, yet federal research continually finds that many Americans live in so-called food deserts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service has found that limited access to nutritious food and relatively easier access to less nutritious food may be linked to poor diets and ultimately to obesity and diet-related diseases. That’s according to a 2009 study titled “Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences.” That study found that about 2.2 percent of—or 2.3 million—households live more than a mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. An additional 3.4 million households live between one-half to one mile from a supermarket and lack access to a vehicle.

For many Americans, corner markets serve as a major source of household groceries, and that’s precisely why United Way of Santa Cruz County has chosen to focus on them for its Healthy Corner Market Project, says Roxanne Harrison, a community coordinator for the organization.

It’s an idea that is being tested in communities around the country, including Philadelphia, where a similar project now has more than 400 corner stores and markets participating.

Vicky’s Produce on Rodriguez Street is the first to participate in the Santa Cruz County program, which was launched last summer. United Way and the store’s owners commemorated six months of the project in December. Two more stores will soon be participating.

Harrison says she doesn’t anticipate beginning work with the next store, D’La Colmena in Watsonville, until February. The third participant is still being determined, she says.

Market owners are required to participate in the project for six months, and when the United Way team steps away, their goal is to have ensured that the owner has the tools and expertise to maintain the changes.

The project is funded through local grantors, and United Way partners with local storeowners to make the necessary changes in a way that can still be profitable, says Harrison. She estimates the costs of the changes to be about $12,000 per store.

Many of the changes have to do with how the food is organized within the store. At Vicky’s, for instance, the owners were already stocking fresh produce; it just wasn’t always as visible as many of the less healthy items the store sells.

“Martin [Ramirez, one of the owners] had a lot of healthy things, like dates, but you could never find them,” Harrison explains.

Display and marketing play a huge role when it comes to what people purchase in food stores. A grocery store consultant was brought in to help the owners of Vicky’s—Martin and his brother, Miguel Ramirez—understand how changing where and how items are displayed can affect their sales.

“We were able to help them build new displays and really market [the] healthy foods,” says Harrison.

Yogurts and granola bars, for instance, are now more visible, while less healthy choices like soda and candy bars are no longer as prominent.

Martin Ramirez says he was interested in the project for myriad reasons, but was particularly focused on helping community youth.

“It’s supposed to help kids think about eating healthier,” he says. “We normally don’t really think about what we eat until we start getting sick.”

Developing strong relationships with the owners is a key component to making this project work. When initially approached by Harrison and her team, some storeowners were apprehensive about participating.

“We ask that they add four new healthy options,” Harrison says of participating stores. “Vicky’s [now] offers more—but it was also about moving, say, the soda and getting juices and salads up front.”

Ramirez says the project provided him with a lot of help, and he’s also added whole wheat bread, baked potato chips and more staples like rice to his shelves as a result.

Members of United Way’s Jovenes SANOS, a Watsonville-based youth advocacy group, helped with many of the logistics, including rearranging items and stocking shelves. Jovenes SANOS is a project of Go for Health! that seeks to increase opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity for Watsonville youth.

“Vicky’s was really the pilot program,” says Harrison. “We wanted to see what kind of support we had, and we’re hoping to take what we learned and apply that to our other projects.”

She’s grateful to the Ramirezes for their help.

“I have been really amazed at the progress we’ve been able to make and I think so much of that comes down to our relationship with the owners,” says Harrison. “The true test is now going to be—can they sustain it with their staff? That’s the real question—can these changes be sustained?”

The program is still in its beginnings, but so far, customers seem to be going for the healthier foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables have been the most popular items with his customers, Ramirez says, and he plans on adding more.

 

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