Neighborhood market gets a healthy makeover

Business club students help guide Mercado Latino toward healthier food offerings

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian staff writer


photoTeresa Rodriguez, owner of Mercado Latino.

(/The Columbian)

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Healthy Neighborhood Stores

Eight Vancouver markets are participating in Clark County Public Health's "Healthy Neighborhood Stores" program:

• ARCO Quick Stop, 2829 E. Mill Plain Blvd.

• A-Dong Market, 3220 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.

• A-Z Liquidators, 3308 N.E. 52nd St.

• Europa Food Market, 5910 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Suite C

• Handy Andy, 3314 N.E. 44th St.

• Mercado Latino, 5910 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd., Suite A

• Oscar's Market, 4901 N.E. St. Johns Road

• 24 Hour Food Mart, 2721 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.

Members of the Hudson's Bay High School DECA business club hope that a simple concept — steering shoppers toward nutritious foods at a neighborhood market — will have a healthy impact on their community's well-being.

DECA students have been working since January to develop that marketing strategy for Mercado Latino, 5910 N.E. Fourth Plain Blvd. With guidance from Clark County Public Health, the teens created a "healthy remodel" to improve the store's displays and signs, as well as its produce selection, in order to entice customers away from fatty meats and high-sugar snacks in favor of healthier choices. They unveiled their makeover Wednesday.

With the blessing of store owner Teresa Rodriguez, the high-schoolers tagged some products as healthy, spruced up the modest produce section and added healthier items to the "impulse racks" by the cash registers. They even covered a large beer advertisement with a poster championing fruits and vegetables.

DECA President Maria Melchor, l8, said she's proud of the makeover, especially considering that her family members are regular patrons.

Melchor and other students "identified with the store," said Jamie Bachaus, an AmeriCorps member working with Public Health on this project. "They really felt ownership."

Mercado Latino is one of eight neighborhood markets in Vancouver participating in Public Health's "Healthy Neighborhood Stores" program, which began as a one-year pilot project in 2011, but has since become a full-fledged, grant-funded operation. The goal — one part of a larger chronic disease prevention strategy in the county — is to improve residents' access to nutrition-rich foods in areas with few or no full-service grocers.

Stores work with Public Health on low-cost, individualized plans to stock more fresh foods and highlight healthier offerings. The agency helps them get going, but it's up to the stores to sustain the improvements. The businesses will continue to sell items with lower nutritional values.

The changes at Mercado Latino were based around observations about our shopping and eating habits: we tend to buy food that's cheap, quick and easy, whether or not those choices are healthy. By better promoting healthy items, the program hopes that stores will sell more of those products. Even as the program aims to change consumer habits, the perception remains that while less-nutritious foods are hard on the body, they can be easier on the pocketbook. Struggling families might be more cautious of spending their tight food budgets on fresh produce instead of dollar hamburgers or boxed macaroni and cheese.

"If it's easier and low-cost it's going to drown out the healthier choices," said Tricia Mortell, Public Health program manager.

Neighborhood markets operate on the convenience model, giving customers quick and easy access to basic foods and other necessities. However, small stores might not have the space, or can't afford, to offer a sea of fruits and vegetables as seen in large grocery stores. So instead most convenience stores stock what they can sell: long-lasting foods that are easy to store like dried pasta, canned soups and other processed meals.

Whole Foods and New Seasons Market thrive by fulfilling demand for organic and nutritious foods. And their customers have proved they are willing to pay premium prices for those options. Natural food stores are typically built in burgeoning or higher-income areas.

Now, even convenience stores — sometimes the only food shops in poorer neighborhoods — are getting in the game. Plaid Pantries upped their selection of healthier products in recent years, while last year 7-Eleven announced a goal to have 20 percent of its North American sales come from fresh foods by 2015.

In its 2013 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report, food industry research firm Technomic found consumers are becoming increasingly more health-conscious, with 38 percent saying they'd be more likely to spend money at an establishment if it offered healthy options, a 5 percent increase over 2010.

Rodriguez hopes by better-promoting wholesome alternatives — dried fruit instead of candy, lean fish instead of meat, nuts instead of potato chips — she will not only increase sales, but contribute to positive lifestyle changes.

"I want our community to be healthier," Rodriguez said.