Convenience stores offering fresh food in NC's food deserts

aweigl@newsobserver.comApril 18, 2014 

  • House Committee on Food Deserts

    The House Committee on Food Desert Zones has posted its agenda and materials online: http://goo.gl/pfsLfB

    The committee meets at 1 p.m. Monday in Room 544 of the Legislative Office Building.

Convenience store owner David Rizik experienced firsthand the benefits of adding fresh fruits and vegetables to his store’s shelves: he lost 25 pounds.

Rizik, who owns Mark’s Food Mart along N.C. 33 in Greenville, used to grab a hot dog and chips for lunch during work. Now, like some of his customers, he reaches for an orange or a banana to tide himself over until dinner. “I didn’t do anything [else] different,” Rizik, 46, said proudly.

It was not just his weight loss that convinced Rizik that offering some healthier foods for his customers was a good idea, it’s also better for his bottom line. The profit margin on the clear plastic clamshell containers filled with apples, pears, avocados and grape tomatoes is 30 percent versus 10 percent on most snack items in the store.

“It’s helping my pocket,” Rizik said last week.

Rizik and Diana Vetter-Craft, a community transformation grant official who spearheaded a project to get healthier food in corner stores, spoke earlier this year to state lawmakers studying the issue of food deserts, or areas with limited access to grocery stores.

In an urban area, a food desert is defined as any places where residents live more than a mile away from a grocery store. In rural areas, a food desert means living 10 miles from a grocery store.

Getting convenience stores to sell fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthier food is seen as one way to help improve food access in these communities where many residents struggle with obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The House Committee on Food Desert Zones, which was created to study the issue after Kroger closed two stores in Southeast Raleigh last year, plans to release recommendations Monday on how to help these communities.

Danny Peed of Greenville stops at Rizik’s store a couple times a week to grab some fruit to go. “It’s pretty cool,” Peed said, holding a container of green grapes. “There aren’t that many convenience stores that do the fruit thing.”

The healthy corner store project is part of an initiative attempted in many counties across the state as a result of community transformation grants funded by the Centers for Disease Control.

In North Carolina, the grant funding, which was supposed to provide $7.4 million per year over five years, was directed at projects to promote healthy eating, active living, tobacco-free living and working with doctors to improve services for patients who smoke or have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. The federal grants were discontinued after three years and will end this fall.

Grant workers across the state met with mixed success after working with corner stores in counties, such as Pitt, Robeson, Davidson and Lincoln. Neither Wake nor Mecklenburg counties received such grant funding to participate in the healthy corner store initiative.

In Rizik’s store, Vetter-Craft used some other grant funding to buy a $5,200 cooler for Rizik’s store to be able to store fresh produce. A shelf was purchased to display bananas, potatoes, sweet potatoes and onions, which his customers specifically requested.

Rizik said he learned through trial and error what worked for his customers: individual servings of fruit or vegetables portioned out in those clear plastic clamshells work best. Rizik either goes to a nearby warehouse store three times a week to buy the produce or buys from local farmers. Beyond the produce, Rizik also added wholegrain bread and low-fat milk to his store’s offerings.

Seeking buy-in

That’s not to say that all the unhealthy food has vanished. A sign urging customers to eat healthier foods hangs above a rack of seasoned pork rinds.

Vetter-Craft was lucky in that Rizik was a store owner who was willing to take the risk and bought into the concept. Not all grant workers have seen that success.

Travis Greer, a community transformation grant worker in Robeson County, said they ran a two-month pilot program at a convenience store in Atkinson, a town of several hundred people in Pender County. Greer worked with Feast Down East, an entity that distributes food from local farmers in southeast North Carolina. As long as a Feast Down East employee was ordering and setting up the produce, Greer said, it sold well, including selling out of 40 pounds of sweet potatoes in the first two weeks.

Once the workload shifted to the store’s staff, the program fell to the wayside, Greer said. Melissa Rogan, who works with Feast Down East, thinks store owners could be persuaded to do more: “If there was some type of incentive for encouraging store owners to participate, I think we would see a giant increase in the number of stores willing to offer fresh food.”

Erin Bayer, a project coordinator for the grant program managed by the Cabarrus Health Alliance northeast of Charlotte, said they had such success with two stores in Lincoln County that their program will be expanding to about five stores in Gaston, Iredell and Catawba counties. Without the grant funding, local health departments are taking the lead to develop the relationships with store owners.

“I think it is something that will continue to flourish regardless of the funding,” Bayer said. “You cannot put farmers markets everywhere. You have to meet people where they are already going.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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