The produce display at Central Food Market, a recently opened corner grocery store nestled in a commercial strip on North Central Avenue, has never looked better.
Thanks to the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Healthy Corner Store initiative, fruits and vegetables are better showcased at the store owned by Imtiaz Khan.
Khan was approached months ago by Italia Guerrero-Granshaw, the organization’s nutrition educator, and her team, who offered to improve his store’s produce display and provide a one-day promotion to entice the store’s customers to shop for more fresh fruits and vegetables.
It all ties into the program’s larger mission to bring fresher, healthier food to the shelves of local corner stores in the hope of improving the diets of its low-income shoppers.
“With this particular store, we gave them funding to improve the baskets they needed to hold produce on the shelves. We gave them shopping baskets and carts,” said Guerrero-Granshaw. “We may not think about it, but it’s the little things about the visibility and presentation of the fruits and vegetables that are part of the purchase process.”
On Nov. 6, $10 coupons providing discounts on fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk, and water were given to shoppers in collaboration with the office of Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages.
“We gave out $10,000 worth of community coupons,” said Guerrero-Grenshaw. “And that was to help this store get more visibility and traction around the community. What the store needed, determined what we purchased for them.”
“It was a great program,” said Khan. “A lot of people came out. I’ve never heard of the program before, but it was great for business.”
Guerrero-Granshaw said her team have reinvigorated and remodeled dozens of grocery corner stores and bodegas across Long Island, which historically cater to underserved populations, to improve accessibility to fresh foods and vegetables.
With growing food costs, families are struggling the past few months paying their grocery bills, but none feel the pinch more acutely than low-income families. For them, fresh fruits and vegetables are often either too expensive or inaccessible.
Poorer neighborhoods have long been plagued by a lack of healthy food offerings. But even when healthy food is available to poorer residents, they may still steer clear of the fresh foods and vegetables in favor of tasty, cheaper, time-saving options.
It’s a common trade-off, noted nutrition experts: food choices that are inexpensive and longer lasting, albeit low in nutrients, tend to win out over healthier but often more perishable and pricy options.
And it’s not just low-income families pulled toward less nutritious options, but also the store owners that serve them.
When shelf-space is limited, meeting client demand for junk food, sugary drinks, and other calorie-dense products tends to undercut room for fresher, healthier produce. Nutrition and health experts are trying to intervene by taking steps to make healthy food more accessible.
That likely won’t be a challenge for the Central Food Market. While not a full-sized supermarket, Central is larger than your average market corner store, boasting an entire assortment of basketed fresh fruits and vegetables, which run down the length of the store aisle. The store itself serves customers of varying income levels and accepts those with SNAP benefits.
When canvassing for stores to join the program, “criteria number one,” according to Guerrero-Grenshaw was that the store accepts SNAP benefits from customers. Her team also intends to check back with Khan to see if the store has managed to see an uptick in the sale of its fruits and vegetables by the end of the year.
While keenly aware of the challenges low-income families face in budgeting for healthy food, the initiative recognizes that encouraging healthier eating habits requires educational efforts that speak to customers’ needs for convenience, taste, and dietary preferences.
To that effect, Guerrero-Grenshaw left flyers with healthy food recipes and resources at the counter for those interested. “We still have a lot of those flyers but it’s there for anyone to get awareness about using fresh and whole foods,” said Khan.