There are about 2,000 corner stores in Philadelphia and, like those elsewhere in the country, they often don’t carry healthier snacks and groceries, like fruits and dairy products. Owners, like Catalina Hunter, who owns Alba’s corner store in Hunting Park, said that fresh foods need special handling, and she was hesitant to say customers would buy healthier foods if she stocked them in her store.
“We have a lot of products in the store. Fruit wasn’t something I considered much,” Hunter said.
A recent study from Temple University shows that high school students visit corner stores twice a day, five days a week and purchase 350 calories on each visit to the corner store.
Stephanie Vander Veur, who worked on the study, said these students are consuming almost half a kilo’s worth of additional calories each week.
“In my opinion I think it’s really interesting that a child can spend a dollar and get 350 calories on average at any one trip to a corner store,” said Vander Veur.
That is one reason, she said, why half of all the children living in America’s cities are overweight.
But some are fighting to get healthier options in food deserts. According to the Philadelphia-based Coalition Against Hunger, a food desert is an area that lacks fresh healthy foods. Food deserts are often in neighborhoods over-packed with corner stores that sell mostly processed unhealthy foods and areas that lack grocery stores that sell fresher foods.
“With those packaged goods, the profit you’re making is a couple cents per item, but with produce, it tends to be higher,” said Brianna Almaguer Sandoval, project manager for the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. That initiative is an arm of the Food Trust, a nonprofit that is trying to make access to healthier foods easier and profitable. Most areas of Hunting Park sit in food deserts, but the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, is trying to change that.
Sandoval said that stores can turn a profit with healthier items. “With those packaged goods, the profit you’re making is a couple cents per item, but with produce, it tends to be higher.”
The store owners receive $100 as a joining bonus, attractive baskets and stands to display their fresh produce, and refrigerators to store it in. The Food Trust works closely with store owners at first, introducing them to suppliers, showing them how to handle the food and providing materials to market it.
Alba Grocery Store is one of 440 corner stores in Philadelphia that has signed up for the program. The store acts as a kind of central hub for the surrounding neighborhoods, and often draws young people who end up purchasing high-calorie snacks.
Alba owner Catalina Hunter said that the store has been a part of the Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Initiative Program for the past year and that she’s seen a lot of residents purchasing the healthier options.
“When we opened the market to fruit, we had people that appreciate it and I felt like it was a good investment,” Hunter said.
Hunter said that a lot of students that come into the store purchase ice cream or other unhealthy snacks. Most of the ice cream products that are sold at Alba are under a dollar.
Sandoval explained that the Food Trust also provides a list of healthier items the stores could carry, including canned goods, whole grains, dairy products, lean cuts of meat and fresh produce. “We go back in three or four months and see if they made those changes,” she said.
The community has embraced the new access to healthier foods.
Hunter said the students are now buying more fruit instead of junk food. “They like it,” Hunter said. “It’s convenient, it’s close.”
Before the program started, Hunter only carried bananas and plantains. She said she now stocks a colorful spectrum of oranges, apples, plantains and potatoes. Meanwhile, other cities have taken notice of Philadelphia’s success and are planning to launch programs closely modeled on the Healthy Corner Store Initiative.