Several “healthy corner stores” in Grand Rapids ready to expand

W.K. Kellogg Foundation grants neighborhood ventures funds to expand the program to 10-12 more stores over the next two years.

Last year, Tienda Guatemalteca Mahanaim, located near the corner of Diamond and Fulton in Grand Rapids’ uptown business district became a “healthy corner store”. The 900 square foot Hispanic grocery now offers neighbors fresh produce, a variety of cheeses, whole grain tortillas and breads, canned vegetables, fruit juice, dry beans and low fat dairy products. Store owner Amelia Escobar, her husband Genaro Vazquez, and her daughter Xeomara Montenegro operate the store and are pleased with the impact the project has had.

“We thought we didn’t have enough floor space to offer fresh produce,” said Xeomara Montenegro, store manager. “The healthy corner store project helped us rearrange our layout and grant funds were used to purchase a new 50 inch cooler for fresh produce. We made the investment in new wiring for the cooler. It was so successful, we purchased a new freezer ourselves.”

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Xeomara Montenegro, store manager of her mother’s neighborhood corner grocery store in Grand Rapids, is pleased with the results of the Healthy Corner Store project. Her 900 square foot store added a cooler for fresh produce with grant funds from the project.

The initiative to increase access to healthy food options in urban neighborhoods was launched with seed funding from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan in 2010 to Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine (CHM) as part of Project FIT, a community initiative addressing the concern of childhood obesity. Neighborhood Ventures, a Grand Rapids-based community and economic development agency serving the city’s twenty neighborhood business districts was called on to implement what was called the “Fit Store” pilot program.

“Neighborhood Ventures was pleased to partner with the MSU College of Human Medicine on the pilot project,” said Mark C. Lewis, Executive Director. “We saw this as an opportunity for our businesses to expand services with healthy food options to their customers and become more profitable. There are currently 55 small corner stores operating on Grand Rapids’ south side. We were privileged to work with six of those stores in the first two years.”

The success of the program did not go unnoticed, especially for the positive impact it offers families and youth. “We’re very pleased how the upgrades have been received by the community,” said Lewis. “We look forward to expanding into a Grand Rapids Healthy Corner Store Network by adding 10-12 additional stores over the next two years thanks to generous funding support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.”

The Healthy Corner Store Network project in Grand Rapids has three main focus areas:

1)      create infrastructure inside stores so they may stock healthier items;

2)      provide marketing tools such as in-store shelf-talkers, and banners as well as external advertising; and

3)      increase access to wholesale distributors of healthy food.

Lewis noted that the passion and interest of store owners is critical for the long-term success because, “Fundamentally the project is about building the technical capacity of the small business to continue the healthy corner store model.”

Montenegro said she has noticed that the new healthy products have brought in new customers and she has observed an increase in sales. “Customers like making homemade, fresh salsa so we try to always have tomatoes, limes, onions, jalapeños and cilantro in stock.”

fresh food at corner store
Genaro Vazquez stocks fresh produce in the 50 inch cooler purchased with grant funds as part of the Healthy Corner Store project. The most popular items are cheese and vegetables and herbs to make fresh salsa.

Sourcing produce or healthy food can be a challenge. Large scale distributors are not an option for many stores because of low volume. A distribution partnership with the Grand Rapids’ YMCA’s Veggie Van was created to help stock fresh produce at participating Healthy Corner Stores.

Montenegro feels that many of her customers have added fresh produce, low fat dairy and whole grains to their diets as a result. She noted that even though they specialize in Hispanic grocery items, only 60 percent of their customers are Hispanic or Latino. The other 40 percent are predominately African American and Caucasian. The majority of her customers live within walking distance. It is truly a neighborhood corner store.

When asked what advice he would give to others wanting to start a Healthy Corner Store project, Lewis noted, “Be open-minded about what is considered healthy food in these small markets. Fresh produce is very perishable. Whole grains, low-sodium canned vegetables, canned fruit in juices and low-fat dairy products have a longer shelf life. You need to build healthy food into the way business is done every day. Ultimately, we have to make sure the stores have the tools to actually stay in business if they are going to be resources for healthy food in our neighborhoods.”

For more information about the Grand Rapids Healthy Corner Stores Network, contact Mark C. Lewis at (616) 301-3929, or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). For more information about Michigan State University Extension’s Community Food Systems Programs, visit www.msue.msu.edu and click on the “Community” link.

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