Two local corner stores are participating in a healthy-eating initiative, made possible by a state grant, that’s helping to boost the accessibility of fresh produce.
The Lincoln County Health Department, in partnership with Cabarrus Health Alliance, was announced last year as a recipient of a regional Community Transformation Grant (CTG) from the North Carolina Division of Public Health. Over a five-year period, the region, which includes several surrounding counties, will receive $2 million to target the economic, social and physical root causes of chronic disease, according to previous Times-News reports.
The local project is focusing on tobacco-free living, active living, healthy-food environments and clinical-preventative services, with Lincoln County selected to serve as the healthy-food-environment lead due to the Health Department’s ongoing collaboration with the Cooperative Extension and other community partners.
Some of these efforts are, specifically, being geared toward implementing policies to expand convenience and corner store offerings by promoting healthier food and beverage options, as opposed to the usual candy, chips, soda and other junk-food items typically in stock.
The Westside Market, owned by Hardy Patel, and the Country Corner Store and Café, owned by Mark Harris, recently became the first local participants in this initiative, designed to make it more convenient for customers to make healthy choices by encouraging the placement of fresh foods on store shelves.
“Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet,” Patel said in a release about the project. “So, I think it’s important as a member of the community to offer healthier items to my customers.”
Kellie Hull, the healthy-food-environment coordinator for the project in this region, is working with both Patel and Harris to fully implement the program.
“It’s really hard for people to make good, healthy choices when those choices aren’t available nearby,” she said in the release. “That’s why we are partnering with local store owners like Hardy and Mark to offer better choices for Lincoln County’s residents.”
Patel’s market borders what project leaders call a “food desert,” where area residents have little or no access to fresh and affordable healthy foods. As such, they are often limited to the packaged and processed food available at the closest corner store.
To help combat this, Patel has begun to offer various produce items, based on what is in season, including tomatoes, onions, cabbage, watermelon, apples, bananas, local honey, healthy snacks and staples like whole wheat bread, rice and beans.
“Customers’ response has been very positive, and we are really happy with being able to sell fresh produce,” said Patel. “We are selling our fresh produce at very reasonable prices so our local customers have the opportunity to purchase these items. I hope we can add some more fresh produce and other products in the future.”
Meanwhile, the Country Corner Store and Café has also incorporated into its stocked items healthier options, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and already prepared “grab-n-go” items like watermelon, carrots, cantaloupe, honeydew melon, strawberries and cherries.
“Around here, there’s a lot of neighborhoods whose residents will pop in to the store,” Harris said in the release. “Once they know I carry produce, like Lincoln County homegrown tomatoes, they come in more and more for these items.”
Last month, representatives from the Food Trust, a nonprofit group that developed groundbreaking initiatives around healthy corner stores in Philadelphia, came to check out the progress of the “Healthy Corner Store” initiative in Lincoln County, the release noted.
“They thought it was a great start and were excited to see both stores’ display of fresh produce right when you walk through the door,” said Hull. “The CTG project is working with the Food Trust for technical assistance on how to really make this initiative work in different stores across the state.”
Grant coordinators collaborated with the retailers to provide in-store displays, signage and promotion of their new, healthier choices.
“I am very glad that my store got a chance to take part in this kind of opportunity,” said Patel. “I am very thankful to Kellie and the North Carolina CTG project.”
The state’s Division of Public Health has funded 10 multicounty collaboratives in total in order to implement jurisdiction-wide changes, with the initiative to span through September of 2016.