Walk into most any convenience store and you’ll face a colorful array of chips, candy and other calorie-laden snacks. Now imagine, instead, baskets of bananas and oranges and in place of a cooler stocked with soda, a refrigerator packed with green peppers, apples and lettuce.
That’s the notion behind Healthy on the Block, a project of the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition, whose aim is to transform the local corner store into a healthier grocery destination. The program’s outreach coordinator, Oni Tongo, a second-year Friedman School student studying food policy and applied nutrition, is working to sign up stores in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood, which has the highest obesity rate in the city. So far, two stores are selling and promoting more healthy foods, and two others have agreed to join in.
Mattapan has plenty of convenience stores but only one large supermarket. The project could have tried to bring in another grocery chain store, Tongo says, but instead chose to encourage existing convenience stores to sell fresh fruit and vegetables. “That way,” she says, “people can get food in a location they are familiar with.”
There are challenges. Tongo has learned that food manufacturers give stores an incentive to put their products front and center, so there is little motivation to elevate the visibility of fruits and vegetables.
And the cost of produce can be high, so Healthy on the Block is trying to find ways to mitigate that for local shoppers. One idea is to have stores band together to purchase produce in bulk and pass the savings on to customers.
Meanwhile, shoppers have to be enticed into buying the healthy food. One store has offered customers a free healthy item after they purchase 10 healthy items. At a recent community event, the program served healthy foods made with ingredients that can be purchased locally.
The favorites? Mango salsa and bruschetta. Attendees got recipes for the dishes.
Tongo, the recipient of an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship that encourages graduate students to develop programs that have a lasting impact on the health of a community, says Healthy on the Block has given her a sense of why people have a difficult time eating well.
“We have a lot of work to do before we even get to teach people about what choices to make,” she says.
This story first appeared in the Winter 2012 Tufts Nutrition magazine.
Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts,edu.