Grassroots programs transform the corner market despite stalled legislation

A stark contrast from his imaginative storefront—painted cobalt blue with yellow smiley-faces—convenience store owner Joseph Attiq described his role in the San Diego community of City Heights with quick realism:

“I’m here when someone needs a pack of smokes. If they need a light, I’m their guy.”

But in areas like City Heights, where corner markets seem to outnumber car owners and where grocery stores are sparse, businesses like Attiq’s El Super Market often serve double duty, filling the cupboards of nearby residents no matter their limited selection. Now, community efforts to bolster such stores with healthy food are cropping up across the country as national and state initiatives on the matter stall.

President Obama’s healthy food finance initiative, which would appropriate $340 million in grants to large and small markets that stock fresh foods in food deserts, remains in limbo with the federal budget. Similarly, a California measure sponsored by Assembly Speaker John Perez set out guidelines for distributing and growing that seed money, but was vetoed in September because the federal dollars weren’t certain.

Still, advocates say they remain dedicated to the approach. In communities like City Heights, financial and cultural barriers often mean behaviors can’t change, but stock can. Residents in City Heights, many who are refugees, often can’t drive to the grocery store. If they can, they don’t have the money or knowledge of U.S. foods to make nutritious purchases, said Mallory Cochrane, a coordinator with the International Rescue Committee. The corner market is often more accessible and a comforting fixture in the community.

Indeed, Attiq doles out more than a nicotine high from his market on Euclid and Orange Avenues. On a slow Saturday morning, he offered advice on remedying a traffic ticket and navigating the courts to one of his regulars, a woman dressed in traditional Somali clothing. He said he’d love to offer her avocados, too, but the exotics—what he calls produce other than apples, oranges and tomatoes—are just too much of a gamble when he’s already taking the fruits he can’t sell home to his kids. Anything more would need an open refrigerator, which means electricity costs he can’t carry.

“I’m a small guy. I can’t compete with Ralph’s,” Attiq said. “If I got another refrigerator, I’d have to stock it with energy drinks and coffee just to make it worthwhile.”

This seems to be the crux of food insecurity in City Heights. It doesn’t look like a food desert. Its geography is dotted with food retail options, but they aren’t necessarily nutritious. A recent community survey found that nearly 85 percent of City Heights residents live within a quarter mile of a market; citywide, only about 40 percent live as close to food retail. However, when tracked by The Reinvestment Fund, a community investment group, much of the same area was considered a “low access area” because there are few full-service grocery stores. In fact, the local survey shows that 85 percent of the food retail locations in City Heights are small markets and convenience stores.

A 2008 study by California Center for Public Health Advocacy, University of California, Los Angeles and PolicyLink shows that residents in communities with a high ratio of convenience stores and fast food outlets to grocery stores were about 20 percent more likely to be obese or have diabetes. Although a 2009 US Department of Agriculture report to Congress on food deserts cautioned that studies haven’t yet established a strong connection between food access and obesity, many neighborhood advocates insist that the link is clear.

According to Dawn Kamali, a specialist with SAY San Diego who works with liquor store owners and their neighbors, the majority of market owners are responsible operators who provide what they can for the community, but “the few bad operators tend to be really bad.” She said she’s found recalled baby formula and expired food on shelves.

“They don’t always care about the food because their bread and butter is the liquor,” Kamali said.

Rather than work with these merchants, most of the progress in City Heights has focused on developing farmers markets and community gardens. The International Rescue Committee has grown a robust program that matches food stamp funds at the local farmers market. The program recently expanded to a new farmers market just south of City Heights near Chollas View. The New Roots Farm and several smaller community gardens allow immigrants and refugees to grow their own food, and have been touted as a model for healthy living by Michelle Obama and others.

But little has been done to improve the food sources closest to homes and apartment buildings in the neighborhood. According to advocates, the closest model for such work is in Los Angeles. There, Community Health Councils, Inc., sponsors the Food Policy Roundtable and Neighborhood Food Watch. Community organizers and participating residents created a “Standards of Quality” agreement that store owners can sign and display; among its principles are placing healthy, organic products in high visibility locations and supplying quality produce and whole grains.

The group also created a standardized checklist that it uses to sweep area markets and report negligent operators to the county department of public heath. What’s more, vigorous communication efforts tell residents how to report expired foods in local markets themselves and how to petition or support proposals for new stores in the area.

Another group in Los Angeles aims to educate as well, only it does so with a little more flash. Market Makeovers, a project sponsored by the California Endowment’s Healthy Eating, Active Communities initiative, enlisted local high school students to perform a television-style makeover on three corner stores. Walls were painted and junk food was moved away from the point of sale in favor of produce. The result was a new orientation toward health in the markets and a colorful, multimedia website that acts as a toolkit for others to do the same.

Similarly, teens in Baldwin Park, Calif., worked with HEAC to help eight corner stores create “Healthy Selection” aisles where nutritious options were prominently displayed with signage that rivaled those for beer and snacks. The program included free marketing and advertisements in newspapers for business owners who adopted the new business strategy. Students in Santa Cruz County also succeeded in getting five Watsonville, Calif., markets to sign agreements similar to the standards of quality developed in Los Angeles and participate in monthly follow-ups.

Finally, middle school students in Shasta County asked the Wal-Mart manager in Anderson, Calif., to reconsider its displays at check-out aisles, convincing him to replace sweets with dried fruit and granola bars in several of the aisles.

In City Heights, moves toward improving access to healthy food retail have started largely with the store owners themselves. Mark Kassab, a longtime resident who owns a grocery store, corner market and gas station, has set up a shuttle service that helps seniors get to and from Supermercado Murphy’s. Attiq, too, seems as energetic about securing funds to improve access to healthy foods as the bright smiley-faces that adorn his storefront.

“I would love to sell that stuff—to have a full-fledged produce section,” Attiq said. “Tell me where to sign up.”

This sort of reception to healthy food retail among business owners is just one reason advocates like Rebecca Flournoy of PolicyLink say they’re hopeful lawmakers will move forward with healthy food financing. Their support bolsters a funding model that’s proven sustainable, according to Flournoy. The Pennsylvania initiative from which President Obama and Speaker Perez’s plans were modeled took just $30 million in state seed money and resulted in a $190 million investment.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Flournoy said. “You provide the start-up costs, but it really becomes a public-private partnership. It’s an investment but not an ongoing drain.”

A bipartisan committee in the Senate and House introduced healthy food financing bills late last month, suggesting the cause is still at the forefront as lawmakers craft a 2011 national budget. A source in Speaker Perez’s office said the speaker will reintroduce a California financing initiative during the next legislation cycle.

“The timing is right for a healthy food financing initiative,” Flournoy said. “The motivation is there, but there are a lot of questions still about how the politics will play out.”

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