Denise Clark often shops at the Stop & Go convenience store on Arlington Avenue on the way to pick up her son from Bowsher High School.
During one such stop last week, the store buzzed with activity as dietitians from the Lucas County Health Department offered samples of healthful foods.
Ms. Clark, 51, was happy to learn the Stop & Go is joining the Healthy Corner Store program, sponsored by the health department and Live Well Greater Toledo. The store she frequents and two others in South Toledo now offer fresh fruit and produce, along with more typical convenience-store fare.
“I think that this is good because the younger generation is eating a lot of junk,” Ms. Clark said.
She said she prepares healthful food for her 15-year-old son, but all he wants to eat is microwavable snack food like pizza rolls, while her grandson in the sixth grade already weighs 200 pounds and has high blood pressure.
Her grandson is not alone. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, nearly 30 percent of Ohioans and 35 percent of people in Lucas County are obese, said Tony Maziarz, the health department’s Creating Healthy Communities coordinator.
For about 10 years, health professionals “have been trying to figure out what’s causing obesity. Is it poor access to healthful foods? We think so. So why not start there if we can?” Mr. Maziarz said.
With the help of a $110,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control, Mr. Maziarz is overseeing several local programs aimed at creating healthy communities.
He has teamed up with the three local stores for the Healthy Corner Store initiative. The grant funds help with marketing for the stores efforts with produce. The Saveway Market on Broadway was the first to sign up in 2012, followed by the Stop & Go store on Broadway and most recently the store on Arlington.
Saveway Market saw a big increase in sales of fruits and vegetables by simply moving them to the front of the store, Mr. Maziarz said.
“They saw a 50 percent increase in produce sales after the partnership,” he said.
Jennifer Whitzel, manager of the Arlington Stop & Go, agrees that the positioning is key. The store has a tall display of fruit directly in front of the checkout counter.
Although the official kickoff was last week, the store has been selling produce for about a month, said Ms. Whitzel, who added she has noticed changes in her customers’ buying habits.
“The kids coming in here every day, either before school or after school, generally they used to get the more fattening foods — you know, Honey Buns, doughnuts, stuff like that,” Ms. Whitzel said. “But now that we have the bananas, apples, oranges, and stuff, they see it as soon as they walk in the door because the items are right there and they’re actually picking up the items and buying it for themselves now.”
Mae Ashford, who lives on Glanzman Road, stopped by for cigarettes but found herself tasting potato soup the dietitians had prepared.
“Delicious,” she said.
Ms. Ashford often drives to the store, but many of its customers walk because they don’t have transportation to shop at larger grocery stores.
One of the Healthy Corner Store program’s goals is to give people in low-income areas more access to fresh produce.
Ms. Ashford said she understands how transportation issues can affect one’s food choices.
“I've been there. I raised three kids by myself,” she said. “I lived on South Broadway and there was times my car would break down and I didn’t have the money to fix it. So I always got in walking distance of things.”
Stop & Go owner Tim Ridi said many of his customers walk to the Arlington store, with about 80 to 85 percent from the surrounding neighborhood.
“If I didn’t have this store right here, it would be a lot harder for my customers to go to the next grocery store that is about two or three miles away on Glendale,” Mr. Ridi said, referring to a Kroger supermarket at Glendale and Detroit avenues.
Mr. Ridi and his family own both Stop & Go stores participating in this program. The Arlington store is bigger than the Broadway store, so it is a better test case for his business.
If the fresh produce sells well here, Mr. Ridi plans to expand the program to all 37 stores he and his family own in the Toledo area.
“Anything beyond break-even and a little bit of profit, we would consider it success. If someone buys an onion, maybe they will also buy a can of soup, but we are not going to make a lot of money from selling produce,” he said.
Sarah Bucher, director of healthy living with the YMCA of Greater Toledo, hopes the concept will catch on across the city.
Ms. Bucher has been working with Paula Hicks-Hudson, president of Toledo City Council, and Lucas County Commissioner Carol Contrada to take this program a step further.
She is promoting government incentives through legislation that would make it attractive to other local store owners to provide healthful food in their establishments.
Contact Marlene Harris-Taylor at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6091.