BioCycle February 2011, Vol. 52, No. 2, p. 29
Targeting underserved “food deserts,” city of Philadelphia and the nonprofit Food Trust work to provide access for all.
THE Healthy Corner Store Initiative began as a project of The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that has grown from teaching nutritional cooking classes at the Reading Terminal Market in 1992, into a formidable organization with 75 employees and an annual operating budget of more than $6 million. The core mission of The Food Trust is to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food. While operating mostly within the Greater Philadelphia area, The Food Trust now supports projects across the country that spread its mission. The organization was recently named among the top five “high-impact” nonprofits working in the field of health and childhood nutrition.
In March 2010, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health landed two multimillion dollar federal Recovery Act grants through the Centers for Disease Control: $12 million to prevent tobacco use and $15 million to prevent childhood obesity and related diseases. The Food Trust was instrumental in crafting the food procurement component of the latter grant application, and the Healthy Corner Store Initiative (HCSI) – which brings fruits and vegetables and other healthy food options into underserved “food deserts – is an important element of the grant.” With these funds, partners including the city of Philadelphia and The Food Trust hope to recruit corner stores in every neighborhood across the city. With an initial stated goal of 1,000 participating stores, they are approaching the halfway mark.
Of 44 cities to receive federal tobacco and obesity prevention grants, Philadelphia was one of only four – along with New York, Seattle and Los Angeles – to receive funds for both. The partners explain that the anti-smoking campaign and Healthy Corner Store Initiative present a logical match because shopkeepers’ lost revenues from tobacco sales can be replaced by the new revenue stream of providing nutritious food to their communities. The overall program is called “Get Healthy Philly.”
According to a recent Food Trust newsletter, the convenience or corner store marketplace is dominated by individually owned stores, which comprise 62 percent of the market or around 90,000 stores nationwide. These stores predominantly sell packaged foods and beverages of minimal nutritional value, alcohol and tobacco products, with few healthy or fresh options available. The Healthy Corner Store Initiative recognizes and builds upon the potential of these small-scale stores to improve community health and promote economic development by offering infrastructure improvements, such as refrigeration and shelving, and training for marketing and handling perishable whole foods. In addition to creating access, another key goal of the program is to increase consumer knowledge of healthy foods and how to choose them.
“Realizing that every community would not have a supermarket, we partnered with The Food Trust to provide technical training to these small convenience stores so they could learn to sell these new products at a profit in order that the program would remain sustainable beyond the life of the grant,” says Giridhar Mallya, policy and planning director for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “A secondary aim of the program is to promote healthy small businesses.”
The ground-floor participation level of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative is for shopkeepers to agree to stock at least four new healthy products; these could range from fruits and vegetables to lean cuts of meat to low-calorie snacks. “Even if they already carry, say, low-fat milk, we’re asking them to pick new items they don’t already have,” explains The Food Trust’s Brianna Almaguer Sandoval, program manager for the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. “Many of the stores are excited about thinking about more healthy options and having someone to help them take that step. They are really getting into it.”
Adds Mallya: “In the coming months we’ll be providing training and technical assistance, and we’ve started providing mini grants for conversions – shelving and refrigeration – changing what a store looks like, really, and its capacity to carry certain products. This spring and summer, we will focus on bringing on additional stores.” The Healthy Corner Store Initiative also has been working with convenience store food vendor Jetro to help it source produce locally, such as through Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.
The program also includes a social marketing campaign designed to guide customers into making healthier decisions at the point of purchase in the Corner Store environment, explains Sandoval. “We use the traffic light concept to guide customers towards healthier decisions. Red would be a type of food that you should eat once in awhile, while foods in green are healthy and can be enjoyed anytime. For example, fresh fruit is a green-light food while canned fruit in heavy syrup is a red-light food.”
Part of providing access to affordable, nutritious food includes the establishment of farmers’ markets in strategic places across the city and incentive programs, such as Philly Food Bucks, for residents to shop at them. “For every $5 you spend on your SNAP card – (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) – you receive $2 in Philly Food Bucks you can redeem for fruits and vegetables at any one of 16 farmers markets across the city,” says Sandoval. As well as getting residents to shop at farmers markets, the Philly Food Bucks program incentivizes them to take advantage of their federal assistance.
CLASSROOM TO CORNER STORE
Another critical component of The Food Trust’s work is its school wellness programs operating in 200 schools across the city. “One of the biggest challenges of doing nutrition education in many communities is that while we can teach students what they should be eating, those foods aren’t necessarily available in those communities,” says The Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative Youth Coordinator Katie Olender. “That’s where the Healthy Corner Store Initiative comes in; we can tailor those lessons to be specific to what they can access in their communities.” The Food Trust’s Snackin’ Fresh campaign, the youth component of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, recruits student leadership crews to help with classroom lessons and encourage their peers to eat healthy outside the school environment. “It makes our job much easier, so we can target certain foods that are actually in these stores,’ says Olender. Schools also work on decreasing the availability of unhealthy food and increasing healthy food options.
In February 2010, the Food Trust took national center stage when Olender and a group of students she works with were featured on Good Morning America followed by a visit two weeks later by First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her Lets Move! campaign. “I think that getting this national recognition is a real boost for the program and kids,” says Olender. “It helps them to see that what they’re doing is making a difference outside their own school and their own community. It’s all tied together – the Healthy Corner Store Initiative is not just stores and it’s not just youth. Youth feed into what’s happening at the stores, and it feeds back to youth. It’s very cyclical.”
The federal grants fund projects through March 2012. “In the end, we want to make sure this makes sense financially for these small businesses and give them the support they need up front to procure healthy foods and market them appropriately to customers,” says Mallya. “We think this can be a sustainable solution, and we want to convince these corner stores that this is good way do business – providing healthy food and be able to make a profit. Through the Food Trust we’ve contacted over 2,000 stores already, and about 450 have signed onto the initiative.”