County effort helps convenience get healthier

Program works to put fruit, veggies in small stores to encourage better habits

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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photoZachary Kaufman/The Columbian Singh also sells fruit slices, seed and nut bars and fruit leathers in his ARCO Quick Stop and at the Evergreen Mini Mart. Seven other stores are set to become Clark County Public Health Healthy Neighborhood Stores.

At first, Kuljit Singh wondered if Clark County Public Health’s idea to put fresh fruits and vegetables in his Arco Quick Stop in central Vancouver wasn’t, well, bananas.

But Singh agreed to be the pilot spot for the county’s new Healthy Neighborhood Store program, placing apples, oranges, bananas and fruit slices front and center -- before hungry eyes graze over Cool Ranch Doritos and king size Baby Ruth bars.

“A lot of stores, they want to make money; they want to put all the crazy big candies in front,” Singh said Wednesday. “I took the gamble. I want to put the good stuff in front.”

So far, it’s a bet that’s been worth placing. Singh said some customers have started grabbing the fruits, veggies and other healthy snacks instead. Bananas and other fruit are two for $1 or 59 cents each. Apples are 89 cents.

His supply rarely spoils before it’s sold.

Public health officials were hoping the pilot project would pay off too: In Clark County, just 17 percent of residents live within a half-mile

of a full-service grocery store or farmers market. But some 41 percent are within a half-mile of convenience stores or fast food.

In central Vancouver, long marked as the area’s largest food desert, half of residents are within a half-mile of only unhealthy food sources.

In response, Clark County’s Chronic Disease Prevention Department is hoping its Healthy Neighborhood Store program can help make some changes. Now that the pilot phase is over, it has seven more small markets lined up to participate.

“It’s about increasing access to healthy food and also about changing that mix,” Tricia Mortell, program manager, said. “If people see healthy food and have access to healthy food wherever you go, it will make it the new norm.”

The county program, funded by grants from Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will help stores transform their stock by providing tips, signs and posters. The merchant is in charge of purchasing and selling the foods, without any subsidy from government.

The project isn’t intended to take the same cookie-cutter format for each shop -- rather, store owners can survey customers and adjust their offerings as needed, said Elspeth Durek, with the county’s Chronic Disease Prevention program.

What’s important is having healthy options available for those, including some seniors, who may rely on convenience stores for the bulk of their day-to-day food.

“Some do rely on these stores for their groceries,” Durek said.

Hudson’s Bay Neighborhood Association Chairman Dennis Zoet said that he hasn’t heard from residents that they can’t reach fresh foods. But that doesn’t mean his neighborhood doesn’t support the plan.

“It’s a good option for people to have those kinds of things available to them, instead of just chips and beer,” Zoet said.

Singh, owner of the Arco Quick Stop at 2829 E. Mill Plain Blvd., also began running the Evergreen Quick Mart at 2126 E. Evergreen Blvd. on Monday. Already, he’s moved in a three-tiered basket for fruits, and hung a poster in the front window advertising their presence.

He pointed to some pallid-looking apples he said were from the previous management, and contrasted them with the larger, shinier fruits he had supplied.

“I want to give people what I like, what I think is good for me,” Singh said.

The stores set to join the program are A-Dong Asian Cafe and Grocery; Oscar’s Grocery; Europa Food Market; Mercado Latino; 24 Hour Food Mart; A-Z Liquidators; and Handy Andy.

After central Vancouver, Mortell said the program could be expanded to other areas of Clark County.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.