Healthy Corner Store Initiative Takes Off in Providence

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Fresh food for everyone. [Photographs: Dave Ciplet]

Food justice has fortunately become a topic of much discussion in the national media. But there are still few provisions in place to improve access to healthy foods in low-income communities. The Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, an advocacy and action group that addresses many environmental issues, has set out to stir things up.

Their new Healthy Corner Store Initiative takes junk food-laden local markets and spruces them up, showcasing fresh produce and fruits within easy reach of customers. With the help of high school students and other like-minded organizations, the EJL is hoping to do Corner Store Makeovers on markets across Providence. I spoke with Amelia Rose, the director of the EJL, to see how the first makeover went and chat about the future of this project.

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Volunteers and students prepare for a market makeover.

So, how did everything go at your first makeover, at New Battambang Market on August 10th? It went really well—we had at least 15 high school students [helping out] and all our project partners were there. The owner of the store seemed really excited and let us do whatever we wanted (Laughs.) [We made] small changes, but I think there's a big difference especially when you first walk in. The first things you see, instead of chips and candy, are fruits and vegetables—and we put lots of signs up promoting the local produce.

Talk a bit more about the involvement of high school students and other partners. The students [in our summer program at the Community Environmental College] were really inspired by the issues around food access so I wanted to create an avenue to continue to keep these high school students involved throughout the school year. I also worked with other food organizations like Farm Fresh Rhode Island who really wanted to collaborate; and we brought on Kids First Rhode Island which does a lot of advocacy to improve school nutrition.

Where did you source the fresh produce from? The two stores that we're working with already sell quite a bit of produce—they're not solely basing their sales on junk food. But they didn't necessarily have the highest quality or freshest produce, so people in the neighborhood didn't want to purchase produce there because it looked bad. We want to get really fresh and locally-grown produce in the stores. We were able to do that through FFRI and their Market Mobile program. We're still working out the details of what the model is going to be in terms of delivery and cost. The farmers are really interested in this new market and customer base, so they're willing sometimes to reduce prices.

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At the end of the day, a healthier market and some happy mouths.

How did you choose these two stores for the first makeovers? I went around with high school students who were interning with me, into every corner store in this neighborhood and talked to about 15 store owners. Some were hesitant, some were interested but if the owner wasn't there, it was a hurdle. These were owners who were there consistently and were interested. Now that we have these showcase stores that are going to be made over this week, I'm hoping that this will build momentum and we can encourage other store owners.

I could see us doing a few more of these makeovers through volunteer efforts, maybe five more. But if we're really going to shift all the markets in Providence, or even just the South Side, we'll need more resources.

Do you have a sense of the community response so far? Everybody loves the idea. Some people are skeptical that we could change peoples' habits (Laughs.) Honestly, I don't feel like the impact on the community is going to be huge but we're creating an access point for healthier foods and educating about local foods.

We're affecting two audiences: the store owners, who now have an incentive to stock healthier things; and the youth that we're working with, who have been able to put all that they've been learning into practice. They're the ones who are going to be the ambassadors, to their schools and families, and making changes in their own lives.