Jul 16 2012

Healthier Options at L.A. Corner Stores

Corner Stores in Long Beach, Califor., Encourage Healthier Eating with Samples, Signage and Store Changes

Long Beach Corner Store

Innovation to improve population health was a key part of Los Angeles County Health Director Jonathan Fielding’s talk to the attendees of the National Association of County and City Health Officials Annual Meeting in L.A. last week. And just a few miles from the conference hall, innovation was on delicious display, during a smoothie tasting outside a small corner in the L.A. suburb of Long Beach.

Giselle, age 2, who stopped into the demo with her mom, enjoyed her first healthy smoothie—vanilla yogurt, orange juice and strawberries—so much that her mother listened attentively as the Spanish-speaking staff working outside the tiny corner store showed her the ingredients she’d need, all available at the shop behind them, to easily make the drinks at home.

Long Beach Corner Store-2

The smoothie demo was the work of staff from the North Long Beach Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Zone, a program of the Long Beach Health Department, including some salaried high school health workers, who together have burgeoning relationships with owners and managers of corner stores in areas of Long Beach where the tiny shops are often the only food stores available to the community.

The store where Giselle got her smoothie has been expanding its healthy foods for over a year, with lots of help from HEAL and the health department, and is currently one of five neighborhood corner stores participating in the program. Mehari, the store manager, now stocks produce as beautiful and fresh as any farmers market, often priced to move. While bananas and avocados are the top sellers, selections the day of the smoothie fest also included beautiful melons, peppers, berries and tomatoes and are about the first foods to hit a shopper’s eye as you enter the store. That’s a design change made with a nutritionist from the health department over the last few months. Mehari says he has seen an uptick in produce purchases, some lower fat milk and healthier snacks. Across from the cash register is a wide display of single-sale healthier options including granola and protein bars, small baked chip packages, and single servings of dried fruit and apple sauce. Other changes include the new addition of fat-free protein drinks, at the request of customers, cereals grouped so that the lower sugar ones are most visible and “healthier options” signs throughout the store marking lower-fat, lower-calorie choices.

Down the street, says project director Shawna Stevens, another market is making changes as well, including menus that list the calorie-count of many of the store’s take-out selections. “Those sheets always have to be replenished, and have resulted in standardizing the recipes and the take-out containers so the fat and calorie content stay consistent,” Stevens says.

The funding to help this and other local markets make changes to encourage shoppers to make healthier choices comes from a $1 million multi-year grant from Kaiser Permanente on behalf of the Coalition for a Healthy North Long Beach, awarded last December. The HEAL Zones are designed to help make healthy choices accessible to more people in underserved communities — and in turn to prevent diseases such as diabetes and heart disease that often result from obesity. The overall vision of the HEAL Zone initiative is to support people to eat better and move more as part of daily life.

Corner Store Healthier Options

Stevens says they’ve done a bit of polling among shoppers and are starting to see changes, including a switch to lower-fat milk among about 15 percent of the 75 shoppers who responded to a survey. The high school staffers offering smoothies, who all come from the neighborhood where the store is located, say they’ve made their own changes while involved with the project including more water instead of soda, and healthier choices at family meals. One says she’s been successful in getting her boyfriend to order less off the menu when they eat at fast food restaurants. And Mehari, the store manager, says he sees first hand that the messages and choices have effect. He only eats baked chips now, even though the store is still full of other choices, and when customers see him reaching for his afternoon snack, they now often see him selecting from his produce section.

>>Bonus Link: Herminia Palacio, MD, MPH, executive director of Harris County (Texas) Public Health and Environmental Services  Department unveiled a striking video on childhood obesity at last week’s NACCHO Annual at a session on branding for local health departments. The video, flush with numbers that show the increase in childhood obesity in Texas, stresses often overlooked impacts obesity can have on children—such as bullying and not being picked for sports teams and on adults, such as getting inferior care from some health providers. The key message of the video is the need for policy change to address the obesity crisis in the U.S. and in their county.

Tags: Healthy Food Access