(DANIELLE PETERSON / Statesman Journal/AP)
SALEM, Ore. — The Marion County Health Department has partnered with seven corner stores in so-called food deserts to ensure residents in the area will have better access to healthy foods.
With the help of a three-year Kaiser Permanente grant of $170,000, the health department has been out in the community to educate and coax store owners to offer fresh produce — a departure from the traditional corner store staples, such as chips and soda. These stores are in food deserts, areas in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.
"This is a growing trend in communities interested in combating obesity because it deals with access to healthy foods," said Jennifer Eskridge, prevention program supervisor with the health department. "Food deserts are less likely to have access because they're too far from full-access grocery stores. They're relying on corner stores that are stocked with high-calorie and low-nutrient junk food."
This is where the health department has come in, guiding store owners to help improve access to healthy foods for their customers. It is one of the ways Marion County hopes to address the problem of obesity in the area.
Marion County has a 30 percent adult obesity rate, according to the latest County Health Rankings issued by the University of Wisconsin and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Eskridge has said stores have used different strategies to improve their inventory. One, for example, is providing healthier dairy options using a refrigeration unit provided by the county. Others are working on marketing their healthy products.
Some have required more convincing than others, Eskridge said, and the county has been able to offer incentives such as produce display signs or counter-top displays to make buying in easier. So far, the feedback has been positive, she said.
"Our store owners are reporting that they aren't losing money, and they are selling produce," she said.
Elizabeth Montano, owner of Come N Go in Woodburn, said she was already interested in selling healthier foods at her store when she heard about the Marion County program.
She went to a class offered by the county about healthy eating, and Montano mentioned that she wanted to offer healthier options at her business. That's how she was introduced to the Healthy Corner Stores project.
Four months later, Montano is selling fruit cups, yogurt and fresh sandwiches. She was already offering vegetarian and soy-based burritos.
The result? People are buying the healthy options.
Montano said that because her customers are busy people, the healthy options had to be easy to grab and noticeable.
"I really believe in this initiative because if you put it out there people will grab it," she said.
Montano, who is an immigrant from Mexico, has also learned a lot from the process.
"Where we come from, meat is the main dish," Montano said. "Beans and other things are like side dishes. But in reality … you realize that beans can be a main dish. They don't need meat on top of all that."
Because Come N Go is the only food business in the area, whatever she offers is the only choice her customers have, Montano said.
"If I offered only fried food, that's the only thing people are going to buy because there's nothing else," she said.
The health department is going into its final year of the Kaiser grant, so the future of the Healthy Corner Stores initiative is uncertain.
This week, five of the corner stores will participate in World Food Day events designed to garner support and awareness of the healthy foods initiative. Owners will provide samples as well as information on the program.
In the next year, the goal is to recruit two more corner stores into the program and continue to provide technical assistance and support to the seven that already are on board.
It also is soliciting additional grant funding to expand the program and continue the relationship with store owners.
One concern is that without continued support, the changes store owners have made might wane.
"I think that is one of the things we think about long term," Eskridge said. "We want this to be sustainable and we want this change to be something that happens long term."
In one encouraging case, Pardo's Deli on Lancaster Drive SE has been making changes in two of its other stores because of what it has learned through the program, even though the other stores aren't in food deserts.
"There's a lot of opportunity here for lasting change," Eskridge said.