The Food Trust in Philadelphia has a new scheme to expand healthy food options at corner stores and bodegas around the city.
For years, Philadelphia has bragged about — and gotten national attention — for its “Healthy Corner Store Initiative.” Owners at 600 stores say they stock nutritious food, but skeptics have long wondered if anyone actually buys the apples, skim milk and whole wheat bread.
In some stores, bags of brown rice and low-sodium black beans gather dust on lower shelves. Often the fresh food section is small.
A new merchandising effort from The Food Trust is supposed to make the healthy options hard to resist. Five stores got free marketing materials, brightly lit kiosks, expanded refrigerator space for fresh food as well as a little help from community educator Maria Vanegas.
She visits each store regularly to answer customer questions and share cooking ideas.
“This part of the program is really teaching people how they can use that healthy food, how to make a recipe, where it’s located in the corner store,” Vanegas said. “You can have it there but if you don’t know what to do with it, how are you still going to eat healthy? So I think it’s a lot about education.”
At Polo Food Market in North Philadelphia, co-owner Selinette Rodriguez says the new merchandising makes a difference.
“Now the kids — before they go to school — they grab an apple, they grab oranges,” Rodriguez said. “Before it was cake, chips, soda.”
Supporters have just three months of data from two stores, but say the sales of fruit and vegetables increased 50 percent compared with corner stores that did not receive the merchandising upgrades.
Giridhar Mallya, the city’s health department policy director, joined the program announcement at Polo Food Market. Standing in front of a new refrigerated case stocked with cucumbers, celery, peppers and containers of fruit salad, Mallya said the program only works if it makes business sense for store owners.
“I want to make sure that people buy something before they go,” Mallya said. “I’m definitely going for the watermelon, so stay out of my way, please.”