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Goal of 'healthy corner stores' project is more fresh fruit, vegetables in households

Neighborhood Country Market in Mastic Beach showed off its healthy wares Aug. 9. The market is one of eight on Long Island that's part of the “healthy corner stores” project. (Credit: Andrew Theodorakis)

Annemarie Degnall likes how when her kids walk into Neighborhood Country Market in Mastic Beach with her, they immediately see a colorful display of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It’s right here, so they’re not tempted to look for potato chips,” she said.

Go into most delis or small corner stores on Long Island and you’re likely to see a lot of high-calorie, high-fat food but few nutritious options such as fresh produce. Yet for many Long Islanders — especially low-income residents without a car to drive to big supermarkets — these small stores are the only convenient food options.

Neighborhood Country is one of eight Long Island stores that are part of a “healthy corner stores” project to expand access to nutritious food and educate residents on how eating it can be convenient and inexpensive.

The focus is on communities with limited access to healthy food where many residents are on the federal supplemental nutrition assistance program, also known as food stamps, said Zahrine Bajwa, regional project director for Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, which coordinates the initiative on Long Island. Most of the funding is federal.

One challenge is convincing owners that carrying an array of nutritious food is good for business, she said.

“When we talk to the corner store owners, they say the demand isn’t there” for nutritious food, Bajwa said.

Yet surveys show that most deli customers would buy produce, low-fat milk and yogurt and whole-grain bread if they were available, she said.

Some store owners worry about losing money on perishable produce that goes bad, she said. “I always tell the store owners to start out with smaller quantities and then build up,” Bajwa said. “The demand gets bigger.”

Store owners are asked to display produce, water — which is promoted as a healthy alternative to sugary soda — and other nutritious products prominently, said Jacob Dixon, CEO of Roosevelt-based Choice for All, Cornell’s nonprofit partner on the project for the three participating Roosevelt stores. Bethpage-based Island Harvest works with Cornell in Suffolk.

Some stores are given attractive shelving and baskets to make the displays more appealing.

Several months ago, the Long Island Community Foundation and Northwell Health paid for about 425 coupons for full nutritious meals at the Roosevelt stores that cost about the same as the type of unhealthy meals commonly sold at delis, Dixon said.

The coupons were designed to “shift the mindset of the residents” who believe eating healthy is too expensive, he said.

There also have been $1-off coupons for low-fat milk, Bajwa said. The program provides stores promotional posters featuring a colorful array of fruits and vegetables, leaflets in English and Spanish offering nutrition advice, and booklets with low-cost, nutritious, easy-to-prepare recipes. Cornell nutritionists visit stores periodically to give tips and answer questions.

Neighborhood Country Market owner Abdul Rattu said the nutritional education and coupons spurred a spike in sales of low-fat milk since his store became the first on the Island to join the program in 2015. Sales of other nutritious products also are strong, so he now offers a wider variety and larger quantity of produce, he said.

Degnall lives two blocks from the store and likes how “if I’m out of something, I can come here. I don’t have to run to the supermarket. And for people without cars — and there are a lot of people around here without vehicles — it’s very convenient.”

At Riverhead Supermarket, sales of water skyrocketed after the program began there, and sales of sugary beverages declined, said owner Ramón Castillo. Juice sales also rose, he said.

Castillo’s market always has sold a variety of produce, but the project’s promotional assistance helped increase sales, he said.

Customer Sara Gonzalez, 47, of Calverton, said she has a better diet because of the recipe books and tips from the project.

“I’ve learned how to cook healthier meals, with more vegetables and less oil,” Gonzalez said in Spanish as she carried plastic bags bursting with cilantro, onions, chayote squash and other produce.

Castillo’s store is in one of a number of areas on Long Island that the U.S. Department of Agriculture deems as having low access to nutritious foods.

Parts of Hempstead Village, Roosevelt, Wyandanch, Central Islip, Brentwood and North Bellport are among the others.

Traveling to a supermarket in those communities is not a realistic option for many, especially the carless, because of long distances, limited public transportation, poor street lighting and a lack of sidewalks, said Dr. Isma Chaudhry, who directs the graduate-level public health programs at Hofstra University.

Access to nutritious food isn’t the only issue, said Maggie Gray, an associate professor of political science at Adelphi University.

A key reason it’s often cheaper for a family to eat unhealthy food is high federal subsidies for ingredients of products such as high fructose corn syrup, she said.

“A lot of the agricultural commodities that go into food that you find in a bag or a box, those are exactly the agricultural sectors that get the most subsidies from the U.S. government,” she said. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are one of the least subsidized agricultural sectors.”

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