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Latino neighborhoods have one-third as many supermarkets as non-Latino ones, studies show. This can limit food options to what can be found at local corner stores, which aren’t known to carry an abundance of fresh, healthy foods. In the mostly Latino city of Watsonville, Calif., corner stores either didn’t have many healthy options or weren’t encouraging customers to but the few healthy options they did have. One local corner market worked with youth to improve its bottom line while promoting healthy eating in the community.
Awareness: In California’s Santa Cruz County, located on the central pacific coast, the 80% Latino city of Watsonville has disproportionately higher rates of obesity than many other cities.
The city’s food environment plays a big role in the obesity issue.
Many Latino families in Watsonville live closer to a corner store than a full-service grocery store.
Corner stores, also called tiendas or bodegas in the Latino community, tend to offer high-calorie low nutrition snacks like cookies, chips, and sugary drinks.
These unhealthy choices frequently are front–and-center at corner stores, promoting unhealthy food choices. Some of the corner stores to offer fresh fruits and vegetables, but they’re hidden or not clearly displayed, to where shoppers can’t find them and make healthier food choices, said Kymberly Lacrosse, a community organizer for the United Way of Santa Cruz County, Calif.
Learn: To assess and change Watsonville’s food environment, Lacrosse’s United Way of Santa Cruz County established Jóvenes SANOS, a youth advocacy group that increases opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity for youth through implementing long-term environmental policy and system change.
In 2010, the youth of Jóvenes SANOS learned about the city’s obesity crisis. They worked to get healthier food options at METRO transit stations and pushed city leaders to adopt a healthy restaurant program.
But unhealthy food at corner stores remained a problem.
Lacrosse found that many local corner stores, where families often purchase their groceries, had healthy foods, but these foods weren’t prominently displayed, or were even downplayed.
Frame Issue: The city already had a healthy corner store program, the Healthy Corner Market Project, but it had grown pretty stale. Store owners weren’t sticking to the guidelines and customers weren’t aware of any changes.
The stores needed help promoting their healthy items.
“The marketing piece around any food project is absolutely key,” said Dina Izzo of BluDog Organic Produce Services, a consultant United Way brought in to help improve the look and feel of the corner stores.
Lacrosse, Izzo, and Jóvenes SANOS decided that with a little effort, the program could get revamped, reenergized, and could truly impact the community.
“A lot of these corner markets are just small families, local business,” Lacrosse said. “They don’t have a lot of resources. For them to make changes, the financial impact was challenging.”
Education: In summer 2013, youth group members approached Martin and Miguel Ramirez, brothers and owners of local corner store Vicky’s Produce, if they would agree to a new market makeover.
The brothers agreed to participate, but were skeptical about what sort of impact adding a few fruits and vegetables and putting them in more prominent spots would have in the community.
Display and marketing play a huge role when it comes to what people purchase in food stores.
For example, the produce at Vicky’s was displayed in the front of the store, but the items were displayed on milk cartons and some items sat in the same box they were sent in, Izzo said.
“It was very disorganized, not very clean, kind of hard to shop,” she said.
Mobilization: Through a grant from United Way and other stakeholders, the Healthy Corner Market Project was able to give Vicky’s a stipend to add new healthy items, like more produce, dairy, and whole-wheat bread.
Izzo came in to help the Ramirez brothers understand how changing where and how items are displayed can affect their sales.
Jóvenes SANOS youth got to work to better market the healthy items. They rearranged items and stocked shelves to make healthier items, like salads, more visible.
They also helped create a new mural at the storefront that focuses on the healthier fruits and veggies offered there.
Debate: “The hardest part was getting Martin to want to change his store,” said Jose Vasquez. But he said the store owner slowly came around. “After he saw that we were there to help, he went with our ideas.”
Izzo and the youth showed Martin that he could make more profits by displaying healthy food upfront where customers were more likely to see them.
Activation: Flyers and signs can make a big difference in promoting healthy foods, but many store small store owners don’t have the financial resources to do this.
The Healthy Corner Market Project eliminates this potential roadblock.
“We provide all the marketing materials,” said Lacrosse, so that the owners can use their resources to continue to buy fresh produce and other vital store items.
It’s not just about moving healthy options to the front of the store, said Lacrosse, but the store owners were also encouraged place stuff like chips and sugary drinks in less prominent areas.
The youth moved candy bars out of reach behind a glass case at the end of the front counter. On one stand, they moved baked chips to eye level and made fried snacks less noticeable by putting them underneath.
Frame Policy: Market owners are required to participate in the project for six months.
When the United Way team steps away after that, they believe the owner has the tools, expertise and motivation to maintain the changes.
Change: On Monday December 16, 2013, Vicky’s conducted a ribbon-cutting ceremony to kick-off the new healthy changes at the store.
A new refrigerator case by the entry holds plastic take-out containers of fruit and yogurt and chopped vegetables. Healthy snacks like baked chips were moved closer to the register. New displays of fresh lettuce, carrots, bananas, and other produce are now highly visible at the entrance of the store, and the beautiful mural outside the store greets customers and everyone who walks by.
Martin Ramirez was at the event, pleased with all the hard work.
“I liked the fact that the project gave me a chance to incorporate more healthy foods,” he said. “I have fought with high cholesterol in the past so I know healthy eating is important.”
Implementation: To get the neighborhood excited about healthy eating, Lacrosse said that they have held taste tests and cooking demos for folks to come in and try some of the new healthy offerings, as well as the old ones that are now more visible.
Not only are kids in the community being encouraged to eat healthier, but the changes at Vicky’s have led to increased sales, proving that healthy food can be good for business as well as health, Izzo said.
Equity/ Sustainability: Lacrosse said that because the project equips store owners with all the signage and flyers to promote healthy foods, the impact the makeover has on the store is easily sustainable.
But the youth of Jóvenes SANOS aren’t done with Vicky’s just yet. Their next project is to help Martin put in a juice bar in the back of his store.
“The juice bar is…really going to be creating a healthy environment, a healthy zone,” Lacrosse said.
Martin Ramirez is glad the youth asked him to participate, giving him the nudge he needed to make a difference in his community.
“I always knew we were missing some things and wanted to make change, but we needed the encouragement to do it. This was our opportunity to make positive change,” he said.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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