Alabama the beautiful. That’s what we say. Our state is chock full of green countryside and expansive rural realms. While beautiful, there is a downside to the countryside. Many people living in these rural areas are suffering from a lack of access to fresh and healthy foods.
According to the American Heart Association, there are as many as 1.8 million people in Alabama who have limited access to fresh foods. In Montgomery, Macon and Lowndes counties, many residents living below the poverty line do not have a way to travel great distances to a grocery store or farmers market, no matter whether they live in either urban or rural areas.
We call these areas "food deserts" – areas with limited access to fresh, healthy food. Unless they grow their own food, many people living in these areas rely on convenience stores for daily food purchases. Because of this, their intake of processed foods far outweighs their consumption of fruits and vegetables, a result of which can be increased incidences of chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and more.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that 28 percent of the population in Montgomery County has limited access to nutritious foods. That number rises to 35 percent in Macon County. In Lowndes County, almost half (49 percent) of the population has limited access.
To combat the effects of these food deserts and the chronic diseases that abound in these areas, The Wellness Coalition, located in Montgomery, Alabama, initiated a "Healthy Corner Store" program in Montgomery, Macon and Lowndes counties. The Wellness Coalition enlisted the Central Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission (CARPDC) to locate and manage the store program as part of a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"It works," said Sanjay N., cashier at Variety Shopping Mart in Montgomery, Alabama. "We didn’t sell produce before, but when this program came along we could sell fruits and vegetables and we continue to do so. This is a positive thing."
In 2015, five stores in Montgomery, Macon, and Lowndes counties were chosen to launch the Healthy Corner Store program. The stores reported an average gross profit of 30 percent on the produce they carried. Additionally, the Notasulga store owner who was part of this program expanded it to six of his other stores, bringing the first-year total to 11 stores.
In 2016, five more stores were brought into the Healthy Corner Store program. From February-October 2016, these stores sold a total of 5,817 units of fresh produce and reported an average gross profit of 38 percent.
Before a store began selling produce, CARPDC conducted intercept surveys to help determine what produce items the store’s customers would like available for purchase. After the store had been selling produce for six months, surveys were conducted again to help measure the impact Healthy Corner Stores had on consumers. At six-month follow-up, the 2016 report detailed:
- More than half of patrons surveyed stated they were aware the stores were selling fresh produce.
- 12 percent of patrons indicated they had purchased either fresh fruits or vegetables from the stores on the day of the survey.
- 84 percent of patrons said they wanted the store where they shop to continue selling fresh produce.
- 35 percent of patrons said they were eating more fruits and vegetables since they became available in the stores.
"Stores in the Healthy Corner Store program offer a limited but quality selection of fresh produce," said Latrice Lewis, REACH program coordinator for The Wellness Coalition. "In 2016, 20 varieties of fruits and vegetables were sold throughout the stores."
In 2016, the highest-selling items included:
- Bananas (34 percent of total units sold)
- Plums (33 percent)
- Apples (11 percent)
- Oranges (8 percent)
- Lemons/limes and tomatoes (3 percent each)
In 2017, five more stores were added. Surveys conducted before this year’s program implementation showed:
- 21 percent of the respondents lived 10 minutes or more (drive time) from where they were presently buying most of their fruits and vegetables, suggesting a need for increased access to fresh produce in these neighborhoods.
- Nearly 90 percent of the respondents indicated that they would "definitely/probably" buy fresh fruits and vegetables from these stores when they became available.
- Approximately half of the respondents said that they would be more likely to shop at these stores once fresh fruits and vegetables become available.
At the close of the 2017 evaluation period, about one-fifth (or 22 percent) of customers surveyed stated they were eating more fresh fruits and vegetables since they had become available at these stores, while 81 percent of the respondents at post-implementation said that they wanted the corner stores to continue selling fresh fruits and vegetables.
The highest selling items in stores in 2017 included:
- Apples (52 percent)
- Oranges (30 percent)
- Sweet Potatoes (26 percent)
- Onions (22 percent)
With the third year of the program now complete, The Wellness Coalition continued its evaluation process to inform future programs.
"Now that we have completed three years of the Healthy Corner Store program, we can see just how much both consumers and businesses benefit," said Lewis. "We are breaking down barriers to access healthy foods for those in areas without grocery stores or who cannot travel to one. Simultaneously, small businesses are becoming more profitable by expanding the products they sell."
Those small-business owners have been enthusiastic about the program. Many owners increased the volume of their orders due to the high amount of sales they were seeing.
"All of the stores were fitted with promotional signage," said Lewis. "We are provided technical assistance to these stores to help them continue to succeed."
Technical assistance helped each store continue meeting their goals and ensured that sustainable practices were in place. Additionally, new signage and fixtures were provided. Finally, The Wellness Coalition continued working with the stores through Aug. 1, 2018, to help them overcome any challenges or barriers.
A full list of participating Healthy Corner Stores can be found at www.thewellnesscoalition.org/stores