Willene Gibson and her neighbors had a problem: Their neighborhood had no place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. The nearest supermarket was 10 minutes away by car, 45 minutes by bus or a $15 cab ride.
“We had nothing here, nothing,” says Gibson, 65, who has seen her neighborhood go from a vibrant community to one teeming with vacant homes and empty lots.
Bridgeport is trying to change that through its Healthy Corner Store Initiative, an effort to improve food access in low-income neighborhoods. Only a year old, it has already established a track record of success.
Five years ago, the city’s health department, working with Southern Connecticut State University and community groups, held a series of meetings with East End residents to determine the community’s most pressing health concerns. Topping the list: lack of fresh foods.
As a first step, the city organized a farmer’s market in the parking lot of an East End funeral home. A local farmer sells produce on Sundays while the Connecticut Food Bank donates free fruit for low-income families. The market did $11,000 in sales in its first year; that doubled to $22,000 in its second.
“That said to small grocers in this neighborhood, there is buying power,” says Kristin duBay Horton, Bridgeport’s health director.
City officials then decided to expand their efforts by working directly with local food retail stores that had already showed a commitment to selling healthier products. The health department developed a five-point food checklist, including whether a store stocked fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, whole grains or lean protein products. Out of 35 stores in the neighborhood, six made the initial cut, three of which opted into the program.
Officials knew that store owners needed help to carry more fresh produce, so using federal community block grant funding, the city covered the full $8,000 cost of a new refrigeration unit for each store. In addition, each store received a new awning that included the Healthy Corner Store Initiative logo—designed by a local resident—along with nutrition and marketing advice from city health experts.
The results have been positive: Participating stores report a 500 percent increase in produce sales since the program’s inception.
“The new awnings let people know what they can get here,” says Edwin Perez, owner of M & Rios Grocery Deli on Connecticut Avenue, one of the three participating stores. “More people come in after work and buy the healthy things because it is right here and they can cook it for dinner.”
To date, federal grants are the only source of funding for the program. The health department, too, has no one dedicated to monitoring the stores and helping them. DuBay Horton does much of the work herself, even delivering donated fruit to the farmer’s market.
“In the long run, we can’t rely on outside funding and need instead to look at structural changes” in the form of state or city incentives that would encourage corner stores to make the changes themselves, DuBay says.
“Our three store owners in the current program like selling the healthier foods,” she says. “It just has to be made profitable for them.”