Healthy Corner Store Initiative is a Local Home Run

Alma L. Figueroa

We’ve discussed the pros and cons of corner stores in the past. The pros? Convenience. The cons? Lack of healthy foods, litter, ragtag signs, loitering, etc.

Decades ago, the corner store was an essential place to get all sorts of kitchen necessities, including milk, eggs, bread… all of the items that families would need to cook wholesome meals. But over time, as destination-driven grocery stores sprang up, the corner store’s role began to change. Canned goods, chips, candy, cigarettes… these became the standard types of products that filled the shelves, which is unfortunate.

What is even more unfortunate is that the corner stores became the sole option for families that lived in ‘food deserts’ – neighborhoods where it was hard to source healthy food options. In the Buffalo-Niagara region, there are nearly 56,000 households that are located in food deserts.

In 2016, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative was launched to combat the pervasive problem, that was leading to widespread, adverse health issues in low income neighborhoods, including mounting obesity trends. The idea was to start working with the storeowners, to introduce convenient, healthy, and affordable food selections, as well as resources and demonstrations, to better educate customers.

Photo of bags filled with healthy foods, and recipe books

Today there are over a dozen corner stores on the city’s East Side, participating in the initiative. And now, the program is entering into its next phase, thanks to a funding boost from Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York’s Blue Fund. Not only is the funding going towards further implementing the program, it also includes opportunities for the corner stores to embark upon key renovations that will prompt people to shop for healthier food selections. For example, one location boasts a “Healthy Hub,” featuring an educational area, furniture, and a standing space for tabling demonstrations. A number of the corner stores have introduced grab ‘n’ go coolers to keep the products as fresh as possible.

A fridge featuring healthy products
Grab ‘n’ go cooler takes on a whole new meaning

I spoke to Sheila Bass, team leader of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, who told me that the initiative has not only been well-received, it’s also been picking up speed. She said that these stores are typically known for unhealthy options such as hotdogs, lottery tickets, candy, etc.

According to Bass, the ‘all hands on deck’ approach is possible thanks to a broad coalition of partners that is helping to rethink the role of the corner store.

“We asked folks to reimagine their local corner stores,” said Bass. “Then, we introduced the things that they felt were important. We started to conduct tabling events, lessons right in the stores, set up information and signage, and introduced low sodium-high fibre products that combat obesity and cancer. A lot of people wanted to know how they could plan meals, and how to stretch their dollars. We introduced $5 coupons called Health Bucks. We’re meeting people at the places that they frequent – we’re meeting them at libraries, and community centers.”

Another way that the project (a 5-tier approach) is being successfully implemented is by engaging Healthy Food Community Advocates – a trainer-to-trainer model where people who live in the neighborhood are the ‘boots on the ground’ champions of various programs. The Advocates interact with the corner stores, to make sure that everything is running according to plan. After all, they have a vested interest in shaping the future of their neighborhoods, which includes caring about the health of the residents.

Photo of Rocky, Store Owner, Golden Corner
Heart Health Month – Rocky, Store Owner, Golden Corner

Another component of the project is the Refresh Fund, which involves the beautification of the stores, which can tend to look pretty dumpy. Corner stores interested in participating go through an application process, to request a redesign, which can include new awnings, and signage. To date, six stores have applied, and three have been approved. Then there’s Shelf Talkers – in-store signs that help customers to identify healthy food choices. There are also plenty of giveaways, to ensure that customers have the proper culinary resources (such as blenders and crockpots) to make healthy foods at home, instead of relying upon fried foods, for example.

In order for the Healthy Corner Store Initiative to be as effective as possible, Bass said that it’s important to work with community partners, like Allison DeHonney from Buffalo Go Green (Fresh Take meals). Customers can use their Health Bucks to purchase prepared meals that are delivered to the corner stores every Thursday.

All of the in-store healthy initiatives are having a direct impact on surrounding neighborhoods, according to Michael Ball, vice president, community affairs for Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York. Ball, who manages the Blue Fund (health-focused grants program), told me that the Healthy Corner Store Initiative is evolving into a more comprehensive neighborhood revitalization effort.

“We took our relationship deeper with Allison (Buffalo Go Green) to expand the healthy pre-prepared meal program, who is now able to purchase a truck to make the healthy food even more accessible. Under Sheila’s (Bass) leadership there are benefits beyond the health benefits. We’re working with MAP on the West Side, which is more youth-focused. This is important on so many fronts.”

Another community partner that supports these healthy eating programs is the Bufalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC), which helps to develop food as medicine initiatives. These initiatives are not just for mothers and fathers who are feeding their families, they are also for young people who are not acutely aware of the consequences of eating junk foods.

Image of a young man holding up a message sign
HCSI Youth Campaign launch, with hashtag message

When speaking to today’s youth, it is apparent that they want to succeed, but they are not mindful that poor food choices will slow them down, and ultimately hurt them. When asked about their mental and physical states, the youngsters say that they feel tired and sluggish, and have a hard time concentrating on studies, or getting ahead in sports programs. When they are told that their poor food choices are hindering them, they want to know what they can do to change their eating patterns. Once again, the educational component is just as important as making the healthy foods readily available.

After speaking to Bass and Ball at great length, I asked them how the corner store owners initially responded to all of this.

My customers don’t want it… it’s too expensive for me… it’s not a good fit for us…

These were some of the knee-jerk reactions. But with a little education and coaxing, while providing the resources, slowly but surely the business owners realized that everyone could benefit from the program.

Images of people holding up their certificates
Certificates of appreciation

“The storeowners are starting to get it,” said Bass. “They are getting comfortable with the effort. Everyone wins in the end. The storeowners get a certificate of appreciation from the BNMC, which they hang on their walls. It makes them feel proud that they are doing something beneficial for the community.”

And that, my friends, is the way that it should always work. We’ve gotten so far away from what is considered right, just, and normal, because of misperceived notions that being healthy is too expensive, too time consuming, doesn’t satiate us, and doesn’t alleviate hunger pangs. A lot of this is due to large food manufacturers marketing cheap products, while vying for prime shelf space.

Well, this is no longer deemed acceptable. We are starting to take back control of our futures, with the aid of community partners that have the wherewithal to make a difference. Along with buy-in from the corner storeowners, we’re seeing palpable changes in the way that people live their lives, by taking control of their futures.

The Blue Fund has recently been accepting another wave of applications (for healthy initiatives), which wraps up on April 1. Hopefully that will lead to additional projects that aim to get our health-oriented priorities straight.

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