Early in the morning at 28th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue a school crossing guard looked perplexed when asked where the corner store was. The look on her face seemed to ask, “Where isn’t there a corner store?” She pointed across the street. “Right there,” she said. Then she pointed back toward 27th Street. Then she pointed down to the next block, where a corner store sat across the street from the William D. Kelley Elementary School. “They’re everywhere,” she said.
And for the people here, these are more than just corner stores. Like many North Philadelphia neighborhoods, Strawberry Mansion is one devoid of proper food markets, and corner stores, as a result, are a primary source for groceries.
These stores often do not carry fresh food, and kids stopping in for breakfast on this April morning were, as usual, tempted with the high-calorie, low-cost options. This is a dynamic that contributes to a growing phenomenon: while poverty in other countries often leads to malnutrition and unhealthy thinness, in the Unites States, it leads to obesity.
The obesity rate among Philadelphia’s high school students is 17 percent, which is 5 points higher than the national rate. An estimated 51 percent of Philly’s poor children are obese. Compare that to the city’s overall obesity rate of 40 percent, and the fact becomes clear that this problem is one that deserves considerable attention.
The issue is not lost on Dr. Giridhar Mallya, the director of policy and planning at Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health.
“There’s been a tripling in rates of obesity in this country over the last 30 years,” Mallya said, “and that has really affected Philadelphia as a city.” Furthermore, Mallya explained, the problem doesn’t end with obesity. “We’re also seeing increases in diseases like diabetes and hypertension,” he said.
As fruit and vegetable prices have risen over the past 30 years, Mallya said, junk food has become significantly cheaper. “Unhealthy junk foods are cheap, and they’re available at pretty much every corner, and they’re heavily marketed, particularly to kids and particularly to low income kids and communities of color,” he said.
Outside the William D. Kelley Elementary School at 28th and Oxford streets, a boy held up a small corn muffin. “This is not junk food,” he said. “This is a low-fat muffin.” Then he went back into the corner store across the street and bought two more.
The William D. Kelley School was recently featured in a New York Times article for its anti-junk food initiative in which parents stand outside in the mornings, discouraging kids from buying corner store junk food. They weren’t out there this morning, but inside the school lobby there was confidence that the program has been working. McKinley Harris, a parent and participant in the program, said, “Lately, they haven’t been going to the stores as much.”
But even in schools with great intentions and engaged parents, the fact is in low-income neighborhoods there will often be matters more pressing than junk food. School programs and parent involvement can only go so far, and as long as residents have access to little more than cheap, empty calories, this is an issue that will persist.
Last year, Mayor Michael Nutter proposed the sugary beverage tax, which was aimed at curbing obesity but also at helping to close the city’s large budget shortfall. The bill, however, after much lobbying by the American Beverage Association, never made it out of committee.
“We really do believe and feel like there’s good evidence for sugary drinks being a major culprit in the increase in obesity over time,” Mallya said. “In Philadelphia, people on average drink one to two sugary drinks per day. For kids, that can add up to 400 or 500 calories per day–that’s a third or a quarter of what they need. Sugary drinks are empty calories, they offer no nutritional value, they don’t make you feel full, so you end up eating on top of what you already drank.”
Increasing the prices of these drinks, Mallya said, could help to decrease consumption. But even if the sugary beverage tax ever makes its way through City Council, there will still be the other side of the equation to consider: making healthy food more accessible in low-income neighborhoods.
This is where The Food Trust comes in. The Food Trust is a 19-year-old Philadelphia nonprofit that exists for the sole purpose of making healthy food accessible to everyone. Its Healthy Corner Store Initiative, in partnership with the Department of Public Health, aims to convert junk food stores into fresh food stores.
Olivares, a corner store at 1718 Wharton St. in South Philadelphia, is one of the stores that the Food Trust has assisted in such a conversion. Clara Santos, who owns the store, said she had wanted to start selling fresh food, but “was afraid people wouldn’t buy it.” Santos had already been selling bananas and onions, but is now selling an array of fresh fruits and vegetables. “I’d like to keep helping people to get healthier,” she said, “because that’s very good for the community.”
Still, Santos has to sell the things that, well, sell. “I’m not buying a huge amount of fruit,” she said. “I’m buying 16-pound bags. It doesn’t sell as much as the junk food; it’s easier for kids to buy junk.” Santos explained, however, that the fruits and vegetables she does buy don’t go to waste, and that she hasn’t had to throw any away.
Brianna Almaguer Sandoval, a project manager with The Food Trust, said she understands the process. “We’re interested in making sure storeowners can sell healthy food as a sustainable business model,” Sandoval said. “Junk food, although it’s an easy item to put on the shelves, it doesn’t make a lot of money for them.” Sandoval said that storeowners can potentially make better profits by selling healthy items.
Back at the William D. Kelley School, Stephanie Johnson, a grandmother who volunteers for the anti-junk food program, remains patient. “Change doesn’t happen over night,” she said. “It’s a process.”