Vick Ragubir stopped by a corner store in Minneapolis during his school's lunch break, planning to buy some honey buns and a bag of chips, but a seven-foot-tall teddy bear mascot and a raffle ticket changed his plans.
The Roosevelt High School junior unwittingly stepped into the kickoff of the city's Healthy Corner Store Initiative, a six-month pilot project to help 10 corner stores sell more fruits and vegetables. Students from Roosevelt's health careers program, teachers, local food advocates, city officials, and the school's furry mascot crowded into Flag Foods for the unveiling last Friday.
"Wow, this is cool," Ragubir said, as he grabbed an apple.
The 17-year-old said he comes to Flag Foods several times a week during his high school's open lunch hour to buy chips, fries, soda, and honey buns. Or, as he put it, "Basically what everyone buys here all the time."
Over the last month, the stores have undergone healthy food makeovers, in an effort to encourage healthier eating habits and decrease obesity. A grocery store manager hired by the city helped store owners turn unused soda coolers into produce refrigerators, and nudged aside some of the candy and chip displays to make room for new wire racks and straw baskets holding apples, oranges, onions, and other fresh food.
In exchange for the help, store owners have agreed to stock more produce and keep track of sales. The city's Staple Foods Ordinance, passed in 2008, already requires grocers to stock at least five varieties of fruits and vegetables, but many stores struggle to meet the requirement or don't bother trying.
Some store owners buy bananas and other produce from Wal-Mart or large grocery stores, and then mark it up slightly to try to make a profit, city officials said. Store owners also struggle with how to display the items.
"Produce was put in the most random places," said Aliyah Ali, coordinator of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, who surveyed the stores before the program began. "You would walk into a store and you'd find bananas on top of the Doritos."
Flag Foods, in south Minneapolis, didn't sell any produce until it received help from the new program. Nadeem Khalid, the store's owner, said customers often asked for produce, but he worried it would spoil and he'd lose money.
Now Khalid buys fruits and vegetables from Bix Produce, a distributor that provides free delivery with a minimum order of $150. The Healthy Corner Store Initiative directed store owners to Bix because the distributor was willing to work with small stores. The city also gave each store a $200 grant toward their first Bix order.
Flag Foods now sells apples, oranges, bananas, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, celery, lemons, limes, potatoes, onions, and peppers.
"It's a wonderful day," Khalid said, as students trickled into his store during Friday's lunch hour. "I think it's going to improve the business."
For now, store owners and city officials have to wait and see if the changes will be enough to convince customers to grab an apple instead of a candy bar.
At Flag Foods last Friday, the apples were free. Three high school students who helped with the store's makeover handed out the free food and explained the program to fellow high school students, who responded with varying levels of interest.
Even as Vick Ragubir substituted an apple for his usual snacks, his friend bought fries from the store's deli. Meanwhile, other classmates stocked up on Fritos, Kit Kats, and 20-ounce bottles of Mountain Dew.
"Did they move the slushies?" one girl asked, clutching two bags of Lays potato chips as she navigated her way around the new rack of produce at the front of the store. A few minutes later, she paid for her slushy and other snacks, declined a free apple, and left.
Neighborhood resident Cindy Miller was more enthusiastic. Miller, who is 56, does most of her grocery shopping at the store, and had already bought a bag of potatoes and a tomato there earlier in the week during the renovations.
On Friday, she bought two more potatoes, three cans of meat ravioli, a bag of sugar, and two two-liter bottles of Pepsi. When a raffle winner declined the prize - a snack-sized box of fresh vegetables - a project organizer gave it to Miller.
"I came in here for some soda, and I walk out with some carrots, too," she said. "I can't argue with that."
The project's organizers acknowledge that changing people's eating habits will be difficult. About one in four Minnesotans are obese, according to the nonprofit Trust for America's Health.
In Minneapolis, the corner store project is one of several initiatives funded by the Statewide Health Improvement Program. The state created the $47 million program in 2008 to reduce obesity and tobacco use.
The city of Minneapolis received two SHIP grants totaling $2.6 million to help fund the corner store project, a program to create mini farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods, free classes on how to can food, and other efforts to increase bicycling, walking, and gardening. So far, the city has spent about $62,500 on the corner store project.
The SHIP funding runs out in June. With a looming $6.2 billion state budget deficit, all of the programs could be in jeopardy.
"So much momentum has been developed, and it would be shame to lose all of that," said Lara Tiede, the city's manager of SHIP funding. "If we want to realize the full potential of these programs, we need to give them time."
Program organizers will monitor sales at the 10 stores and make changes as needed. If the funding continues, they hope to expand the initiative to other corner stores throughout the city.