Can neighborhood corner stores improve public health?

The Jaquez Grocery straddles Baynton and Price streets in East Germantown. By all appearances, it’s a typical corner store where local residents, many of whom live in a nearby public-housing project, can buy processed foods like macaroni and cheese and tasty snacks like chips and soda.

As part of a citywide initiative, however, Jaquez is encouraging its customers to select healthier foods.

While the store still stocks junk food, it has prominently displayed wheat bread near the front. A decal on its refrigerator warns customers about the dangers of soda. It reads, “Sugary drinks can contribute to diabetes and other diseases. We sell water and other healthy drinks.”

“I come in twice a month, usually to get hoagies,” said Howard Hall, during a recent interview at the store. “They are the best here. But I buy wheat bread here, also.”

Healthy food initiative

Jaquez is one of more than 600 corner stores in Philadelphia, including 22 in Germantown, that have signed pledges to stock healthy food. In exchange, they receive staff training, technical assistance and financial support, including refrigerators to store fresh fruit and vegetables.

It’s all part of what’s known as the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, a program begun in 2004 by the Food Trust, a private nonprofit organization based in Center City which aims to make healthy food available in poor urban neighborhoods.

With the help of a $15 million federal grant awarded to the city’s Health Department in 2010, the Food Trust is now expanding the number of healthy corner stores to 1,000.

“Our program is growing rapidly,” said Sandra Sherman, director of nutrition education at the Food Trust. “We’re just at the beginning.”

An ambitious goal

The goal of the program is ambitious — to improve the health of poor people in neighborhoods where diet-related problems, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease, are rampant. For example, while nearly one-third of all American children are overweight or obese, the figure rises to 50 percent among poor children of color.

In suburban neighborhoods, healthy food options are readily available at supermarkets. However, low-income urban neighborhoods often suffer from what sociologists call “food deserts” — a dearth of supermarkets or other places to buy healthy food.

In the neighborhood around Jaquez, for instance, the nearest supermarkets are about a mile away, making  corner stores a more viable option for local residents, many of whom do not own cars and rely on public transportation.

“I live right around the corner, so I come in because it’s convenient,” said Unique Fountan, a regular at Jaquez. “I usually buy chips, sandwiches and things like that — stuff that is cheaper.”

In addition to convenience, corner stores also offer a sense of community.

“If someone comes in and cannot pay for what they need, I give it to them,” explained Raymond Esteves, a manager at A & L, a healthy corner store in the 200 block of West Queen Lane. “I won’t turn them away. They can get me next time if they have the money.”

Getting ownership to buy in

About 80 percent of all corner stores in Philadelphia are owned by immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Koreans own about five percent, followed by a mix of other ethnic groups, according to the Food Trust.

The stores, which typically struggle to make ends meet, often represent a first-time investment made possible when relatives pool their money for a down payment. Clerks in corner stores are often friends and family of the owners.

To recruit these owners into its Healthy Corner Store Initiative, the Food Trust relies less on moral persuasion than on hard-core economics.

Corner stores, the trust argues, can make money on healthy food because the profit margins are typically 20 to 40 percent, which is much higher than that on chips and soda.

In order to join the Food Trust program, stores have to agree to introduce several different kinds of healthy food such as whole-grain products and low-fat milk. They also have to market the products by posting decals and other educational materials supplied by the Food Trust.

If they complete the initial steps, they can apply for small grants, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, to purchase such items as shelving and refrigerators to store fresh fruits and vegetables.

So far, more than 70 of the 600 healthy corner stores have qualified for grants to buy refrigerators and make other improvements. These stores include what used to be the Penny Saver Market at 4562 Wayne Ave.

The store recently changed hands and its new owner, Felix Gomez, a Dominican native, is hard at work renovating the store, now called Gomez Market.

While the Food Trust recognizes that corner stores will continue to carry pre-packaged foods and high-calorie snacks, it hopes they will market healthy alternatives as well.

Thinking of the children

Of special concern is the marketing to children, who frequent corner stores both before and after school, typically adding hundreds of empty calories to their diets.

In a 2008 study, researchers from Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education examined the purchases of grade school children at 24 corner stores in three poor neighborhoods of Philadelphia with high concentrations of racial minorities. (Researchers did not name which sections of the city they studied.)

The study found that elementary children there visit corner stores an average of once a day and purchase 350 additional calories. It also found that 42 percent of the children shop at a corner store twice a day, adding 715 calories to their diet.

“The three most popular items students purchased were soda, chips and candy,” said Stephanie Vander Veur, clinical research program director and one of the researchers who worked on the study.

To help students consider healthier alternatives, the Food Trust works with 72 city schools where lessons about healthy eating have been encorporated into the curriculum, often through a comic book that features “Snack Smart Street Soldiers.”

Still, educators face an uphill battle in getting kids to kick their addiction to unhealthy snacks still available at stores, even those that have joined the Healthy Corner Store Initiative.

Displays and price matter

Sherman noted that where healthy food is displayed in a corner store is often just as important as whether the store carries such food. Healthy options, she said, need to be placed out front where they will be noticed.

“The more they see chips and snacks at the front of the store, the easier it is for them to reach for them when they only have 50 cents in their pocket,” she said.

For example, the Wayne Supermarket, a healthy corner store at 5348 Wayne Ave., quickly filled with a group of boys, book bags still strapped to their backs, on a recent day after school let out.

The boys didn’t seem to notice the apples and oranges in the store’s refrigerator. Instead, each grabbed a soda and a 25-cent bag of chips from a snack rack at the front door.

“They’re our No. 1 seller,” said Jose Santos, the store’s manager.

While there may be higher profit margins on healthy food, those foods often cost more than junk food, prompting people in poor neighborhoods to go for the cheaper option.

For example, the 2008 Temple study found that for just a quarter, a child could buy any one of a variety of junk food items — an eight-ounce sugary fruit drink, a bag of chips, a candy bar, gum or a Popsicle.

“We have a new healthier drink that is expensive and it sells pretty well,” explained Amy Jaquez, who helps manage Jaquez Grocery, which is owned by her father. “But then some people are like, ‘Oh, that’s expensive!’ when I tell them it costs $2.50 and they will put it back and grab a soda. Our cheapest soda is 35 cents.”

Change in ownership a challenge

Many corner stores change hands regularly in the city’s tight-knit Dominican community.

For example, A & L used to be called B & P, but three months ago, manager Raymond Esteves’ brother-in-law sold B & P to another Dominican, known as Tito, and it became A & L. Esteves explained that he and his cousin are now working to save $20,000 each to pool and open a new corner store.

With just 10 field staff, the Food Trust has trouble keeping up with the constant turnover in ownership even as the initiative expands to yet more corner stores.

“Every time you go back, you have to hope the owner is there,” said Sherman. “If not, you start from scratch.”

This and other challenges face the Food Trust as it broadens its Healthy Corner Store Initiative in Philadelphia and beyond. The program is now operating not only in the city, but also in Chester and Norristown.

The Food Trust’s work in Philadelphia has spurred an informational network of such stores across the country. While the trust’s programs are being closely watched as a possible national model, the verdict is still out on whether they will actually improve the health of poor people.

“While Philadelphia’s policies are innovative, few studies have demonstrated conclusively that these efforts are either changing the diets of Philadelphians or leading to positive health outcomes,” said researchers at the University of Chicago Urban Network in a 2011 report. “Nonetheless, the initiatives appear to hold promise. At a minimum, they should have measurable impacts on the supply of healthy food options among the poor.”

****

Tomorrow, we’ll present a feature on the Gomez Market.

****

GermantownBeat, a NewsWorks content partner, is a local news Web site produced by student journalists at La Salle University. The editors of GermantownBeat are assistant professors in La Salle’s Communication Department. NewsWorks will feature the students’ work on its Northwest Philadelphia community sites, and provide training and advice in multimedia journalism to the program.

This story was reported by La Salle University journalism students Dan Brightcliffe, Caitlin Storbeck, Ben Fallon, Christine Adkins, Nick Iuele, Katie Blessing, Adam Stapenell, Justin Walters, Kerri Corrado, Erin Carroll and Ken Horner.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.