Many neighborhoods on the East Side of Buffalo have long been considered food deserts, with little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. But an ongoing community initiative is working to turn the convenience store into an oasis of healthy options.
The shelves of Food Plus Market are densely stocked with a bit of everything. But some days this convenience store also offers something unexpected.
âWe try to do food tastings here. We come right to the door where people can come in and see our display here, âsaid Sheila Bass, program coordinator for the Healthy Corner Store Initiative.
Bass and his team often set up a table at the store to provide education on nutrition and how best to spend money on food.
âWe’re starting to highlight some healthy choices,â Bass explained, pointing to one of the initiative’s âgood for youâ tags.
Throughout the store, these labels pop up in aisles, stand atop displays and adorn freezer doors, guiding customers to beans, fruit, rice and fresh vegetables, to name a few – a few. But it has not always been so.
âThey didn’t expect a small store to have vegetables or fruit,â said Ahmed Alhoqobie, owner of Food Plus. âJust the basic tomatoes, the potatoes. That’s it. But that’s how small stores do.
In 2015, the initiative approached Alhoqobie to help provide a contrast to the often-processed sweet and fatty options that customers used to see in the East Side. It’s part of what makes the neighborhood a food desert, where people – who typically live on low incomes – have limited access to fresh, affordable food within a mile of where they live.
Alhoqobie received a small cooler for free to place healthy options in the front and center of his store. He started out small, with a few fruits and veggies like broccoli, carrots and tomatoes.
Almost three years later, he was able to return the cooler for her to use at another store. With fresh produce sales up 35 percent, Alhoqobie has invested in two of its own larger coolers to expand the selection.
The combination of healthy options and education in the store works to change a long-held perception in the predominantly black and brunette community of the East Side that what you can walk to is what you owe. wait for you.
While neighborhoods like this declined over the decades, grocery store owners who didn’t live in the community they were selling to didn’t necessarily feel compelled to stay.
So what is left to feed the residents when the big markets leave, taking their fresh produce with them?
âThese were considered candy shops, or lottery shops, or a store where you could get maybe a dozen eggs and a carton of milk,â said Rita Hubbard-Robinson, who focuses on community engagement for the Healthy Corner Store initiative “But what happened over time – supermarkets are gone and people haven’t really increased their mobility. They don’t own cars. Especially in the winter, when you are really closer to home, they rely more on the corner store.
Working in health care, Hubbard-Robinson has had a history of chronic illness in neighborhoods that depend on convenience stores. The zip code where Food Plus is located, 14215, has some of the worst health outcomes in all of Erie County.
âSo there has to be a correlation between the lack of access to healthy food and the overall population health statistics that we are looking at,â said Robinson.
Success in places like Food Plus has led the Healthy Corner Store initiative to expand to seven locations. Just two miles away, in the heart of the urban Canisius College neighborhood is their newest addition – Buffalo’s Golden Corner.
As you enter the store, there is a large cooler near the door. It’s stocked with water and healthy drinks for now, and right next to it is a red welcome mat marks the spot where healthier options will soon be on display.
âVegetables, apples, pears, whatever we need,â said Christopher Khounthy, store manager, as he envisioned the future of the place. âWe will try to push him.
This future exists without the easy profit of alcohol and tobacco sales. Buffalo’s Golden Corner has already disposed of these items as part of a choice not only to serve the neighborhood’s students, but to take better care of their children and families.
But while changing products in a store can happen overnight, changing the community is a long-term endeavor – an effort that cannot stretch too far yet.
âBecause we know that if we put one here and then scatter one two zip codes, it won’t have the same kind of impact,â Hubbard-Robinson explained. âIt might not be a quick turnaround, but at least we can have incorporated access to the community in a real way that will have an impact over time – maybe even a next-gen impact. “
With the help of $ 118,000 in new funding from the United Way and General Mills, and efforts to secure more funding from the USDA and CDC, the Healthy Corner Store initiative aims to add four stores more in 2019, and five more after that.
For now, they’re going to help the seven they’ve got to keep growing, building a dream for the convenience store to become an oasis of health in the food desert.