2010-07-08 / Features

Philly Uses $25M In Stimulus To Fight Fat, Smoking

By Alfred Lubrano THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

PHILADELPHIA (AP) – In the bleak cityscape of Philadelphia’s poorer neighborhoods, the corner store is both convenience and curse, stocking milk and cheese, as well as junk food and cigarettes.

Thanks to federal stimulus money recently pumped into the city, such stores may also start carrying healthier foods, like fresh produce.

In March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced awards of more than $372 million to 44 communities to combat obesity and smoking.

Philadelphia’s share – $15 million to battle obesity and $10.4 million toward smoking cessation over two years – was disbursed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The money is meant to avert what city officials call a “desperate health crisis’’ by preventing heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and diabetes, and by lowering health care costs.

For years, advocates such as the Food Trust have tried to get fresh fruits and vegetables into corner stores.

Working with the city’s Department of Public Health, the Food Trust will use a portion of the stimulus money to augment its Healthy Corner Stores Initiative and reach 1,000 corner stores in low-income areas with high rates of obesity.

The stores will be asked to sign an agreement to participate in a campaign to stock at least two categories of healthy foods, according to Yael Lehmann, executive director of the Food Trust, a nonprofit working to provide access to healthy foods.

“We’ve been able to show store operators that there is customer demand for fresh foods,’’ she said. “There’s a misconception that people (in poor neighborhoods) don’t want fresh food. And we’re showing store owners that fruits and vegetables are actually profitable to sell.’’

For example, Lehmann said, a three-year study of youth snacking behaviors by the Food Trust and Temple University showed, among other findings, that a bag of chips offers a profit of 20 cents, while containers of fruit salads sold for $1 bring in 30 cents of profit.

At Romano’s Grocery Store in Juniata Park in North Philadelphia, the addition of produce increased business by 40 percent in a short period of time, owner Juan Carlos Romano told the Food Trust.

About 100 stores will receive mini-grants for renovations that could bring new refrigeration and shelving to accommodate fresh produce.

The changes are vital, officials say.

“Whenever there’s an epidemic like obesity, it costs society,’’ said Nan Feyler, chief of staff of the Philadelphia Health Department. “The reality is, in poorer neighborhoods, it’s much cheaper to buy unhealthy foods. It’s making for a fairly desperate health crisis citywide.’’

Annual U.S. obesity-related medical spending is estimated at $147 billion, according to the CDC.

At the Jarabacoa corner store at 16th and Ontario Streets in Tioga the other day, customer Tommy Coppock, 78, said he’d tried for years to get the store to stock fresh produce.

“You have to go a good ways to get fresh stuff,’’ said Coppock, referring to the problem of supermarket deserts – large areas of poor neighborhoods that don’t have big grocery stores. Typically, corner stores are just 200 to 600 square feet with two aisles and little room for refrigeration, Food Trust research showed.

With help from the Food Trust, Jarabacoa was able to get a refrigerator that now stocks apples, vegetable juices, and yogurt.

In addition, the store sells tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, bananas, and oranges, which are not the usual fare in places better known for chips, cakes, and cookies.

The Food Trust is con- necting store owners to produce distributors so they can buy as a group and keep the cost of fruits and vegetables low.

Sandy Sherman, director of nutrition education for the Food Trust, began the Healthy Corner Store Initiative for the nonprofit eight years ago, after she approached schools to reduce unhealthy foods and beverages.

“School officials told me that cutting down kids’ consumption of bad foods in schools would have little effect without addressing corner stores,’’ she said.

Since then, Sherman and others at the Food Trust have been educating both students and store owners about the importance of fresh food.

It’s having an effect.

“The other day, my mom asked me if I wanted a pizza roll,’’ said Ivanna Estevez, 12, who will be starting the seventh grade at John Welsh Elementary School in North Philadelphia this fall. She is part of the Food Trust’s Snackin’ Fresh program to enlighten Philadelphia students about nutrition.

“I said, ‘No, I want watermelon.’ It’s important because you won’t get diabetes or overweight or bad diseases, and you can become very healthy in the future, with good bones and stuff.’’

Ivanna said she has approached neighborhood corner stores and asked their owners to stock fruits and vegetables.

“I’m telling them to make the right decision,’’ she said.

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