Metro-East News

East St. Louis corner stores offer more fruits, vegetables

Terrence Conrad, owner of the Bond Avenue Fish Market, is offering healthy options for his customers at the corner store his family has operated in East St. Louis the last 71 years.

The produce offerings used to be just onions and potatoes, but now you can find carrots, spinach, green onions, salad mix, cabbage and broccoli prominently displayed in a refrigerated cooler as well as apples, oranges and bananas near where customers check out.

Conrad believes the demand for healthy foods will increase overtime. “It’s a concept that’s going to catch on,” he said. “Even if it’s not profitable for us, we are going to keep doing it. It’s more than profit driven. It’s a sincere desire to see a healthy community.”

Conrad wasn’t alone in his endeavor to improve the healthy food options at his store. He had encouragement and support from the Make Health Happen coalition, a partnership between the East Side Health District and the University of Illinois Extension. The coalition formed after the health district received a $170,000 national Women, Infant and Children grant last year that focused on food access and improving health outcomes.

“How do we improve the health of this community? By improving access to the food, and in this community that was a big challenge — access to healthy foods,” said Bhagya L. Kolli, division director nutrition services for East Side Health District.

East St. Louis has just two grocery stores — Save A Lot and Gateway Market. However, the city has 42 corner stores.

The 24-member coalition decided to focus on “where people shop” and “where people are,” Kolli said, so they started the Corner Store Initiative as a way to increase access to healthy food. Five of the corner stores got on board, including Bond Avenue Fish Market and East Side Meat Market.

The Make Health Happen coalition offered store owners support and resources to stock healthy foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and eggs.

“Some stores went from 0 to 10 as far as the options of healthy produce they had been offering the community,” Kolli said.

The Conrads have also added wheat bread to its store shelves at Bond Avenue Fish Market. “Each week we are increasing our stock” of healthy food, Conrad said.

Customer JoAnn Vaughn, 44, of East St. Louis has been shopping at the market for the last 15 years. “Here, everything is fresh,” she said.

Vaughn, who recently picked up some fresh fish at the store, said she likes the addition of fresh produce. “We need more fruits and vegetables,” she said.

Getting stores on board

Amy Funk, with the University of Illinois Extension, and Laquitsha Bejoile-Hayes, with the East Side Health District, were instrumental with getting store owners on board.

The health district received little response from letters sent to the corner stores so Bejoile-Hayes visited them personally. She said it helped for them to see her frequently.

Funk praised the East Side Meat Market for allowing them to rearrange one whole aisle of the store — moving healthier options like canned vegetables and whole wheat pastas up higher.

“We tried to elevate the things that are healthy to eye level,” she said.

The coalition first performed an assessment on each corner store, and then asked customers what healthy options they wanted to see. Customers could write their recommendations on a poster board at the store.

“The store owner actually had input from his patrons,” Kolli said.

Conrad tries to offer several new produce items each month.

Members of the coalition helped the store owners with selecting the best healthy options customers asked for and modifying their stores to accommodate the new offerings.

The owners of East Side Meat Market also repaired a large cooler at a cost of $600, which now houses fresh produce.

Funk and Bejoile-Hayes also offered advice to store owners. For example, Funk said the stores weren’t having any luck selling whole watermelons, so she suggested they cut them up and offer slices for sale. It worked. More people began buying watermelon.

“It’s just those simple things,” Funk said, that can entice a person to buy it.

Attendees at a town hall meeting hosted by the coalition last year talked about their safety concerns at some of the corner stores in town due to poor lighting or loitering outside the stores.

“People didn’t feel safe going into these corner stores,” Bejoile-Hayes said.

In response, some corner stores moved benches away from their front doors and improved lighting.

Another hurdle corner stores must jump when it comes to produce is getting a vendor who will deliver fruits and vegetables in small quantities for a reasonable price, Funk said.

“When you are a small corner store, you can’t get the price points that a grocery store can get,” she said. “It’s very hard to find a distributor willing to deliver to you for like 25 apples.”

Highlighting healthy options

The coalition provides stores with posters, recipe cards and signs to highlight healthy food items. Some of the signs on display at Bond Avenue Fish Market encourage shoppers to choose healthy options. One by a can of peaches reads “Choose me I’m a healthy item.” Others by spices highlight the non-salt options shoppers have to add flavor to their food.

“We try to highlight WIC cereals and move higher sugar cereals down,” Funk said.

Signs can also be found up and down the aisles of the East Side Meat Market. The coalition commissioned an artist to paint a mural on the front of the store. However, the artist got only the outline of the fruits and vegetables coming out of a basket finished before weather hampered the progress.

An unknown local artist finished the front mural and also painted a large mural with the same healthy theme on the side of the East Side Meat Market.

“They extended the healthy messaging,” Funk said.

In addition to providing marketing materials to the stores, Funk said the coalition plans to provide education to store owners regarding how to properly care for produce.

“If it doesn’t look appealing no one is going to buy it,” Bejoile-Hayes said.

The coalition is also working with the store owners to offer less sugary beverages as part of the national “Rethink Your Drink” campaign, which uses a stoplight system to draw attention to healthier drinks. Bottled water would be highlighted with green since it’s healthy and soda would be behind a red sign to indicate it’s a less healthy option. Yellow indicates a moderately healthy drink.

Funk said the coalition is educating store owners about what is truly a 100-percent juice as some drinks may only contain 10-percent juice.

Coalition creates helpful resources

The Make Health Happen coalition also used the grant money to create helpful resources for East St. Louis residents including a quick-reference guide about area food pantries.

The food pantry guide is business-card size, but folds open to allow the user to easily see which food pantries are open which days and what their hours are. It includes the address of each pantry.

The information was compiled by nursing students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, who visited each food pantry.

Now the Make Health Happen coalition is on its own until a new money source can be found. The WIC grant was only for 15 months.

“Fifteen months isn’t enough time to actually see a difference in the community when you are measuring chronic illnesses,” Bejoile-Hayes said. “We need more time. We created these tools, we created these resources, so the main thing is we created a seed. Now we just need some water and a little sunshine to keep things going.”

It takes time to build demand for healthy food, Funk said.

Elizabeth Patton-Whiteside, director of East Side Health District, began building that demand six years ago when she started a community garden. The produce is sold at the farmer’s markets to help sustain the garden.

“Anything we do not sell at the farmer’s market we give to the Catholic Urban Programs or St. Vincent de Paul, any of the food pantries,” Patton-Whiteside said. “If anyone who comes up hungry, who doesn’t have any money or anything, we just give it to them.”

The health district also received a donation of 20 fruit trees from the American Fruit Orchard Co., which were planted near the district’s headquarters on North 20th Street.

“It’s for the community,” Kolli said of the fruit that grows on the trees, which includes nectarines and pears.

The coalition is committed to continuing the work as volunteers and hopes to acquire additional grants.

“We want it to be sustained,” said Kolli.

In the future, Kolli hopes the coalition can help the city of East St. Louis pass a “staple food ordinance” similar to one passed in Minnesota, which requires corner stores or convenience stores to sell a certain amount of food considered to be necessary staples like milk, cheese, eggs and vegetables.

“It takes a generation to change this whole pattern,” Kolli said. “It didn’t happen in one day or six months. It took 25-30 years to be like this. It’s going to take at least 10 years for us to change it, and the way we think about eating healthy.”

Jamie Forsythe: 618-239-2562, @BND_JForsythe

At a glance

These are the outcomes of the Make Health Happen Initiative:

  • Visibility and display of healthy food options was increased and maintained in five participating corner stores in East St. Louis
  • Variety of the fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables offered increased from two to 10 or more the stores
  • More than 250 customers sampled healthy recipes made with ingredients found in the corner stores
  • All the store owners reported that they sold more produce than they did prior to participating in the program
  • More than 5,000 wallet-size food pantry lists and 1,000 food resource guides were distributed during the project period
  • Two of the food pantries reported ordering more healthy options
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