Corner-store program brings healthy food to the masses

Posted: July 29, 2011

IN the food deserts of Philadelphia's low-income minority neighborhoods, where supermarkets are few and far between, the typical corner store that residents rely on for groceries has been a fat fortress, a high-carb castle, a heart-unhealthy haven for high-fructose corn-syrup drinks masquerading as "10 percent real fruit juice."

But today, if you walk into any one of 580 Philadelphia corner groceries, the first thing that hits you is that this is not your mom and pop's mom-and-pop store.

Jose Nunez took over Robles Grocery - on the bustling Juniata Park corner of G Street and Wyoming Avenue - from his mom and pop two years ago, shortly before Juan Vila walked in and offered him 100 bucks to introduce four healthy foods to customers.

Naturally, Nunez's first question was: What's the catch?

No catch, said Vila, a corner-store recruiter for the Food Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to making healthy, affordable food available to all Philadelphians.

The Food Trust is partnering with the city's Department of Public Health, which was given nearly $840,000 in federal funds to transform 600 traditional Philly corner stores into places where fresh fruits and vegetables and low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt foods give customers healthier choices.

Obesity, which is linked to diabetes, heart disease and stroke, is second only to tobacco use in causes of preventable deaths in the United States, said the city Health Department's Sara Solomon, who manages the healthy-corner-stores program.

"Philadelphia has some of the country's highest obesity rates. . . . We know that people who are given access to more healthy food will eat more healthy food," she said. "So this program is a no-brainer for any health department."

At Robles Grocery, the rack that used to greet customers with a cornucopia of sugary snack cakes as they walked in was moved to the back, replaced by a huge display of fresh fruits and vegetables. Even before they enter, customers see the new outdoor produce tables, evidence that Nunez quickly exceeded the plateau of four healthy foods.

He's added such an ambitious array of mangos, pineapples, avocados, plantains and more that he recently qualified for a free refrigeration unit (yogurt! strawberries! fresh fruit salads!). The Food Trust gives fridges to its most gung-ho converts.

"I'm basically the only corner store around here that sells the fresh fruits and vegetables people want," Nunez said excitedly. "I'm always busy. Look at this!"

He picked up a coconut. "That's a water coconut," said Nunez, whose customers are Latinos, Arabs, Asians and Africans. "I sell 15 to 20 cases of these a week. We peel the coconuts outside. Our customers see us. It reminds them of home."

Nunez also grills chicken and pork shish kebabs outside and sells 400 to 500 a day. Even before you are close enough to see the coconuts, you smell the seductive smoke emanating from Nunez's grill and you start to salivate.

"People come here from across the Boulevard," Nunez said proudly. "They come here from Northeast Philadelphia because they can't find the Caribbean produce there that I have here."

Nunez said that about 20 percent of his business is now fresh food, and business is so good, he competes with supermarkets on price. "I sell 5-pound bags of potatoes for $2, bananas for 59 cents a pound, and plantains at six for a dollar. Check out the prices at [a supermarket]. Mine are better."

Three miles south of Robles, Nunez's joyful discovery that healthy foods mean healthy profits is reflected at another Vila recruiting success, Julio Alberto Peralta's long, narrow store on Memphis and Ann streets in Port Richmond.

"When I asked him about introducing healthy foods, he immediately understood what that meant to this community," Vila said, standing amid the pineapples, mangos, peppers, and three types of brown rice on the shelves, and the eggs, lettuce and containers of fresh-cut watermelon in Peralta's new, donated refrigeration case.

"In the beginning, a lot of people told me the fresh food would go bad," said Julio Cesar, a store manager. "When it went bad, I ate it myself."

Vila nodded. "Introducing fresh produce in corner stores is a catch-22," he said. "Owners didn't have fresh produce because they thought people wouldn't want it. People didn't want it because they didn't see it in the corner stores. It takes a little while to change the thinking."

Now, Cesar said, "We sell five cut-up watermelons a week. We sell a lot of apples, mangos, avocados. And bananas? Whoo! We never have enough!"

Fresh fruit salads are a big reason healthy foods are taking over the bustling Christian Food Market on Christian Street near 22nd in the economically and racially diverse - part old-school, part gentrified - Southwest Center City.

"Our fresh fruit salad and cut watermelon is sold out every day by 6 p.m.," said Luis Fernandez, son of owner Ramon Fernandez. "They grab it! By 6 p.m., our customers are saying, 'You don't have no more fruit salad? You don't have no more watermelon?' "

The more healthy foods he adds, Fernandez said, the healthier his customers eat.

"When I first came here five years ago, whole-wheat bread didn't sell," he said. "Now, it's going good, going better than white bread. People are asking for 1 percent, 2 percent milk. That never happened before."

Like the Food Trust's other store conversions, Christian Food Market puts its healthiest foods at the front door, where customers are greeted by a supermarket-like array of produce. The Food Trust signage in English, Spanish and Korean explains the benefits of fresh over heavily salted and sugared foods, and of 100 percent juice over juice drinks.

Ramon Fernandez gave the strongest endorsement to his featuring healthy foods when he said: "There's a supermarket a few blocks away. It does not hurt us at all."

There are no supermarkets and no corner stores anywhere near K&D International Market on Elmwood Avenue and 72nd Street in Southwest Philadelphia, but Ivory Coast natives Seydoh Dao, who manages the store, and his wife, Koko, who owns it, are successfully satisfying the healthy-food needs of residents from Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean.

Only four months since joining the healthy-corner-stores program, Dao has packed his small grocery with a huge variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and with ethnic specialties including ginger roots, okra, palm oil, coconut milk and - as touted on the two display boards he was given by the Food Trust - pig feet, cow feet, goat meat and cow skin.

He also is well-stocked with Ghanaian banku (corn meal) and shitor (hot pepper), salted herring, smoked shrimp and palm-nut cream.

"So many of the foods I sell here are for soup," Dao said enthusiastically. "West Africans, Latinos, Middle Easterners - everyone eats soup, soup, soup!"

Dao stood in his small grocery and flashed a supermarket-sized smile. "This was a struggle when I opened three years ago," he said. "Now, people come here from all over the community because they really want this food."

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