Turning 'food deserts' into an oasis of healthy

Feeding a family on a food stamp budget
Feeding a family on a food stamp budget

Whole meals can be had at the corner store: Chips and salsa. Chocolate bars and ice cream. Pretzels and Cheese Whiz.

Tasty occasional snacks, no doubt. But when millions of Americas rely on convenience stores as their primary grocery, offering more nutritious options becomes a public health imperative.

Several programs around the country are trying to do just that -- putting up the cash so convenience store owners can remodel, showcasing healthy food up front and relegating the sodas and Ding Dongs to the back.

"Right when you come in the door we've got veggies, fruits, whole grain cereals," said Clara Olivares, owner of Olivares Food Market near downtown Philadelphia. "We wanted to offer more choices to our customers, and for the community to get healthier."

healthy market
Clare Olivares sells a lot more fruits and vegetables than she used to, thanks to help she received in renovating her store

Refurbishing stores: In 2012, Olivares signed up for a program run by The Food Trust, a regional advocacy group that gets funding from a variety of public and private sources. The Food Trust provided money and expertise, sprucing up her store with a new refrigerated display case, awning, vegetable kiosk, as well as signs throughout directing customers to the healthy eats.

The Trust provides training on how to handle fresh produce -- such as not storing the bananas next to the apples, as apples give off ethylene, which rots the bananas. There's tricks on how to sell produce, like never letting just a few pieces of fruit linger at the bottom of a big box, as well as training with ordering and book keeping.

Since partnering with Philadelphia's health department in 2010, the Trust has done varying degrees of renovations on over 200 stores. A full-on conversion like Olivares' cost about $60,000.

Preliminary data suggests the makeovers are having a positive impact on health. Some stores in the program offer monthly neighborhood health checkups, and early indicators are that people who shop in these stores are losing weight and lowering their blood pressure.

"It's not a silver bullet," said Annie Leary, a senior associate at the Food Trust. "It's one piece to a comprehensive approach."

Related: Americans waste $640 of food a year

Expanding the program: Nationwide, at least a dozen other cities are running similar programs, including New York, Boston and Washington D.C.

Along with farmer's markets and mobile food trucks, they are yet another way governments and non-profit groups are bringing healthy food to the 23.5 million Americas who live in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls "food deserts" -- urban areas with a large number of low-income people who are also over a mile from the nearest large grocery store, or rural areas where the grocery is 10 miles or more away.

The San Francisco city government has been running such a program since 2013. Last year, it remodeled six stores and plans on doing a few more this year.

To cut out the middle man and ensure a steady supply of fresh produce, the program sets store owners up with vegetable dealers at the San Francisco Wholesale Produce market. Some of the offerings may be organic, but most are just regular fruits and vegetables designed to appeal to neighborhood budgets.

Stores that have been renovated have seen a 35% to 40% increase in produce sales, said program manager Jorge Rivas.

Related: You won't believe the stuff you've been eating

Everyone wins: This is good for store owners, as profit margins on produce are usually higher than other items. Profits on fruits and veggies can be over 40%, while the average for all items is around 20%, said Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores.

Lenard said the store owners he's talked with that have participated in the programs are generally pleased -- their stores end up nicer and they can can sell more items overall.

Olivares said store wide sales have increased 8% since she remodeled.

"The neighbors say it's good that they can get fruits and vegetables right around the corner," she said. "And now we have other things besides chips and cakes."

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