In Philadelphia, the poorest and most obese big city in the nation, nearly half the kids in low-income neighborhoods shop at corner stores twice a day. Researchers found that kids spent about a dollar and consumed roughly 340 calories at each visit, typically in the form of soda, chips, and candy. That’s 700 calories worth of junk, every day, five days a week.
The nationwide movement to improve food in school cafeterias is a positive step, to be sure, but it’s not going to be effective if kids still load up on junk food every day at the bodega across the street. So a Philadelphia nonprofit, the Food Trust, has been working to meet kids where they are—the corner store. Rather than pointing the finger at these stores for contributing to Philadelphia’s obesity epidemic, the Food Trust’s Brianna Almaguer Sandoval enlisted shop owners—most often community members—in a campaign to improve the health of their own communities, while also improving their businesses.
Today, 680 store owners in the Philadelphia region participate in the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. They have agreed to stock at least four healthy new products, such as whole wheat bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, or yogurt, in their stores. They receive free marketing materials, like labels and recipe cards, to help push their new products, and free training on how to select, price, and display their new healthy offerings. The trust also works with youth leaders to engage and educate the community on healthy food choices.
Sandoval, who recently won a Growing Green Young Food Leader award from NRDC, oversees the initiative, which now works with more than one-third of all the corner stores in the Philadelphia metropolitan region. “These store owners expressed concern for the health of their customers and were willing to make changes,” says Sandoval. “They just needed support and guidance to be successful.”
Today, a shop that boasts the Healthy Corner Store Initiative sticker in its window might have its healthy products—fresh fruit, low-fat yogurts, 100 percent juices—displayed front and center, where junk food once ruled. Some stores received funding for infrastructural changes, like new shelves and a refrigerator case, investments of just a few thousand dollars that radically transformed their ability to stock fresh foods. These revamped stores, on average, now offer about 44 new, healthy food items, greatly improving community access to fresh foods.
“The more healthy foods I add, the healthier my customers eat,” said store owner Ramon Fernandez. “When I first came here five years ago, whole wheat bread didn’t sell. Now, it’s going good, going better than white bread. People are asking for one percent and two percent milk. That never happened before.”
Juan Carlos Romano says his business is improving because of the expanded selection. “Before we had bananas and onions; that was about it. Now the store has a produce section and business has increased by 40 percent.”
Anecdotal evidence of the initiative’s success is now supported by hard data. A recent scientific study showed that Philadelphia is one of the few places in the nation that has been able to buck the childhood obesity trend. On average, obesity rates for Philadelphia’s schoolchildren dropped about five percent from 2006 to 2010—a significant reversal. But what really makes the city stand out is that high-risk groups, including African American boys and Latina girls, showed significant declines in obesity, dropping more than seven percent. Philadelphia’s success is being attributed to the city’s broad-based assault on obesity, including the corner store initiative, as well as eliminating sugary drinks from school vending machines, getting rid of deep fat fryers in cafeterias, and educational efforts to promote healthy eating and exercise.
Changing eating habits is perhaps the most challenging part of this work, but grassroots efforts involving youth leaders are making a difference. In California, West Oakland teenager James Berk used to drink two liters of soda a day and microwave burritos studded with snack chips were a major part of his diet. Concerned about his health after experiencing heart palpitations, dizziness, and fatigue, Berk joined a community activist group at age 16 and started Mandela Market, an organic food coop that is the first real grocery store in his community—and he's now its co-owner. Youth activists help bike in fresh produce from nearby minority-owned farms to the market, as well as to a few corner stores and liquor shops, where community members traditionally do most of their shopping.
In Baldwin Park, California, kids designed their own marketing campaign for healthy foods in convenience stores, including a logo to label healthy choices. In Philadelphia, Sandoval also works with Snackin’ Fresh, a youth-led initiative to spread the word about healthy eating, through a blog, comic books, and special labeling for healthy foods. The Healthy Corner Store Initiative started with just 11 stores in Philadelphia. Today, it’s a model for improving access to healthy food in communities across the country.
Sandoval helps lead the national Healthy Corner Stores Network, which provides resources and assistance to more than 700 members implementing similar programs across the country. She envisions a nationwide revamp of the corner store, transforming it from a quick pitstop for calorie-laden junk, to a valuable community asset—a place where kids and adults can find fresh, healthy food and a center for community engagement on issues of health and nutrition.
NRDC is working to move our food system toward sustainability, by changing the way we produce it—getting rid of toxic pesticides in crops, stopping the abuse of antibiotics in livestock production, and keeping contaminants out of food—and also by making the way we distribute and use food more efficient and less wasteful. An efficient, sustainable food system should make healthy food accessible to all communities, regardless of income. The redesigned corner store could be another important tool in the broader effort to transform our food system. And it’s working, one block at a time.