Unlikely allies

Seeking to increase the availability and affordability of healthy foods in low-income communities, advocates are finding unlikely allies in the owners of convenience stores, purveyors of junk food and soda more often dismissed as the “enemy.” I interviewed the coordinator of a group of high school students in the City of Baldwin Park, near Los Angeles, whose initial approach took the form of an audit of their local markets.

“We mapped out cornerstores and small markets and found 17 of them within a two-mile radius surrounding schools…. Candy, chips, soda, and beer were in front of the store. Fruit, water, and milk were in the back. In terms of nutrition bars, peanuts, baked chips, and other nutritious snacks, there were few or none. Produce areas, if they existed at all, were poorly marked and maintained, and of very limited range.”

The students, as part of the statewide Healthy Eating, Active Communities initiative, ultimately convinced eight business owners to participate in the Healthy Selections program, involving simple changes in food placement and signage that encourage kids in the store to make healthier choices.

Yesterday NPR showcased a similar initiative in Pennsylvania led by The Food Trust. In his thoughtful, nearly five-minute report, What Will Make the Food Desert Bloom?, Dan Charles interviewed advocates and researchers about well-intentioned efforts that have not always lived up to their promise, and more recent efforts embraced with surprising enthusiasm by convenience store owners.

The Polo Food Market at the corner of 10th and Brown Streets has a new, colorful refrigerator. It’s on loan from The Food Trust, and it’s stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables. Store owner Salinette Rodriquez says she always wanted to sell this kind of thing. “So when they came with the idea, I said ‘Great! This is what we need!” ….But making this food available is only the start of this new campaign. On several store racks, there are signs that rate products green, yellow, or red, based on how nutritious they are. And there are flashy little cards with recipes for how to use some of the most nutritious ingredients. Each of these meals should feed a family of four and cost about five dollars.

When it comes to healthy eating, especially in today’s economy, cost can be the deciding factor. In the same NPR story, Barry Popkin, University of North Carolina professor of public health, offers this stark observation:

“In 1950, low-income Americans ate the most healthy diets in our country. In 2010, they ate the least healthy diets. And that’s because the least healthy foods are the cheapest.”