As a swarm of people descended on the Pennwood Market in north Minneapolis, owner Ahmad Hawari watched skeptically as his corner store received a makeover.
A city-sponsored team moved fruits and vegetables to the front, and convinced Hawari to hang a huge banner over his cigarette advertisement, announcing fresh produce had arrived.
The changes are part of the city's growing effort to encourage corner store owners to stock more fruits and vegetables, improving access to healthy food in low-income neighborhoods. City health officials hope that making nutritious options available will lead to better diets and less obesity.
Hawari makes most of his money on cigarettes and beverages and doesn't expect he will make a profit on produce. But he agreed to the project anyway.
"Because we are a neighborhood store we wanted to provide the neighbors with access to the fresh produce," Hawari said. "Even if we aren't going to make money on it, still it's a good service for the neighborhood."
Projects like the Minneapolis healthy corner store initiative are taking place across the nation, as cities recruit corner stores to help battle against obesity.
Minneapolis, which launched a pilot program in eight stores in 2010, is adding 29 stores with about $60,000 from the Statewide Health Improvement Program.
The effort targets low-income neighborhoods with high rates of diet-related disease, said Kristen Klingler, who runs the program at the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support.
That includes north Minneapolis, where obesity rates are at 30 percent, well above the city average of 18.7 percent. There are few supermarkets, and car ownership is low.
"Residents really rely on their corner stores to purchase a lot of their food items to make their meals," said Klingler, a Health Living Project specialist. "And those corner stores, as we know, just really don't have a lot of the good, healthy staple foods that people need to make healthy meals."
Corner stores are required to carry fruits and vegetables under the city's Staple Foods Ordinance, passed in 2008. But not all comply. Those that do often stock produce in odd places, such as behind soda racks and beneath the Flamin' Hot Cheetos.
The corner store project encourages stores to carry more produce, display it attractively, and convince customers to buy. The pilot phase of the project, which launched in 2010, saw mixed results.
Justin Pacult, owner of the VitaLife Rx Pharmacy, said he didn't have a place to buy small quantities of fruits and vegetables affordably. Pacult, who was in the first group of corner store owners to participate, said he ran around to Rainbow and Cub Foods, buying up produce and then reselling it.
"Eventually I just called it quits because it was just too time-consuming," he said.
Pacult also was losing money — about $1,000 in eight months, he estimates. Some produce spoiled.
In Pacult's opinion, customers were more interested in buying junk food.
"We did a lot of chips, I mean a ton of chips," he said. "We'd sell a couple thousand a month in chips, compared to $200 in produce."
But the owner of another store a few miles away said the program was worth the time and effort.
Bassem Kablaoui, who has owned the Lowry Food Market for more than 20 years, now boasts a new cooler full of lettuce, green peppers, carrots and fruit.
Like Pacult, Kablaoui runs all over the place to find produce and scours the Sunday grocery ads for the cheapest prices.
Kablaoui said his produce is on average about 10 percent more expensive than what customers would find at the grocery store. But he makes a profit.
As for the stores with less success, Kablaoui said they didn't give it enough time.
"Those people, I think they are short-sighted," he said. "They took maybe the first week and they didn't make money. Over the first months, I lost money, but people have to get used to it."
Kablaoui said people in the neighborhood need fresh produce.
Among them is nearby resident David Miles, who is on a tight budget and doesn't have a car. He wants to give his three kids healthy food, and appreciates that Kablaoui carries it.
"If you're not driving, the money it takes to get on the bus and all that to get there is going to average out to about the same," said Miles, 31. "So it's cheaper to come here."
Many customers of Minneapolis corner stores agree. Of those who responded to a city survey, 94 percent said they would buy more fruits and vegetables if they were available and affordable.
"I think that customers do want it, and if we can work on the price issue, and work on the display and quality issues, then I think those healthy choices will become even more attractive," Klingler said.
Minneapolis learned from the pilot phase of the program, and is making changes this time around, Klingler said. For example, the city is working to connect store owners with farmers markets and discounted food programs so they don't have to shop around.
The city also is doing more to let neighbors know the produce is available through newspapers ads, fliers and community organizations and is holding community events and cooking demonstrations at stores.
City officials are collecting point of sales data from seven of the current stores to evaluate the project.
Until now, little research has been done on corner store initiatives across the country. Early studies suggest the projects can succeed in convincing store to carry and sell more nutritious food. But are people generally healthier as result? Researchers say the jury is still out on that.
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