Series: Shifting the Balance
5:45 pm
Thu May 10, 2012

Bodegas Become Frontlines Against Obesity

Most people know how we should be eating: more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, fewer candies, fats, and calories. But putting that into practice can be tough.

When you walk into the convenience store and a bag of potatoes chips is a dollar, and a salad is six, which are you going to buy?

As part of our continuing coverage in our Shifting the Balance Series, NHPR’s Sam Evans-Brown checked out a Manchester initiative that’s trying to bring healthy food front and center in local convenience stores.

Tropical Food Market is a corner store that would fit right in to any city in the country. It’s got everything you might be looking for from a local bodega: milk, pasta, snacks, beer, and of course a few other staples.

The markets owner John Alonso shows me some of his more interesting wares, "I've got things you never heard in your life like jocotes, another one called cajuls, it's like roots vegetables, it’s arracacha, in English it’d be like yellow cassava."

Tropical Market is taking part in a pilot program through the Manchester Department of Public Health. The program has a high enough profile that the Mayor of Manchester, Ted Gatsas, turned out for its kick-off. The mayor shakes the hands of constituents, hands out free samples of apples in yogurt, and smiles for the photographers.

The initiative, called Manchester Healthy Corner stores, is a bid to get the healthy stuff – the bananas and sunflower seeds – into these local stores and put them front and center.

Ellen Groh, who did a lot of the legwork, says they brought in a professional grocery consultant free of charge.

"What our consultant suggested and what we’ve added is this rack right here," she says gesturing to a rack at the front of the store, "That’s just a sample of all the healthy foods that they carry."

Tropical Market is a little ahead of the curve: it already offered some fresh fruit and vegetables, and many of the South American staples they sell are fairly healthy. At the other stores, Groh says she really had to start at square one.

"The other two stores didn’t have whole grain bread so they agreed to carry that, but that’s even a confusing thing," Groh explains, "The store owner at T&N gas, for instance, he went out and bought wheat bread thinking that would fit the bill, but it wasn’t whole wheat so it’s a learning curve to figure out what really is healthy and what isn’t."

This all sounds great: bringing healthy food in low-income neighborhoods, educating store owners and consumers about what healthy really means, increasing access to fresh food in so-called “food desserts." But here’s where we get back to reality, right next to the new “healthy” rack there’s a display more than twice as big of an old stand-by.

"So we wanted to shift that big rack of Doritos a little farther away," Groh points to the imposing rack, "No, it’s really got to go there, so you know it’s a give and take."

For advocates of healthy eating, this is the high hurdle. How do you overcome people’s habits, the price incentives, and – frankly – that urge for sweet or salty?

A few blocks away, outside another of the Manchester Healthy Corner stores, teenager Joseph Montero has a fistful of colorful wrappers. I ask him what it would take for him to buy an apple instead of the candy he bought. He thinks about it, and tells me, laughing, "I have no idea, this tastes better!"

What Manchester Healthy Corner Stores is fighting against is the accumulated inertia of the American diet. They’re trying to reverse the spinning wheel of an entire food industry that has a long history behind it, and an intimate relationship with its customers. It’s hard to see how something as small as moving a forward a little rack of sunflower seeds stands a chance.

A professor at the Harvard School of Public Health -- which promotes initiatives like these -- Frank Hu, acknowledges combating obesity will not be easy. 

"These kinds of changes in social norms take time," Frank Hu, "it doesn’t happen overnight."

He says meaningful change will come bit-by-bit, and only through constant pressure from many programs like Healthy Corner stores. What’s more is the fight against obesity has only just begun, so it’s still not clear what works.

"This is still an early stage," says Hu, "I think we need rigorous studies to test our programs that can effectively improve healthy eating and physical activity level."

It’s important to point out that Manchester isn’t just putting little racks of whole-wheat bread in the front of a few corner stores. Anna Thomas, Manchester’s Deputy Public Health Director, says the city is trying to make changes on a lot of fronts, like trying to make it easier to walk around the city.

"We also have looked at the built environment design of the neighborhood, add safety features like cross-walks and adequate lighting, we’re trying to install traffic calming measures, putting in cross-walks in ally-ways, so anything that we can do to look at the community, make it more walk-able, and that’s really the nature of what we do at public health."

The people who are making the decisions get it. They aren’t expecting to change the way people eat and live all at once, and they’re ready to apply that constant pressure, but even so we don’t know if that will be enough.

As Tropical Market’s owner, John Alonso, puts it, "Everybody eats junk food."

But he says, "You got to try to change the mind. When you want something fast, you can eat something healthy and good at the same time and that’s what the corner store is for."

That’s the hope anyway. At least now, in a couple of corner stores, people have some healthier choices. Convincing them to choose those, is a another story.

 

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