Truly healthier ‘hoods?

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Belgrade Delicatessen owner Kimberly Flanagan said that Philadelphians were simply raised to eat differently than other Americans.

“Compare Philly to living down South,” she said. “They grew up eating a fresh peach. We had peaches in heavy syrup in a can.”

That might be true for many city residents. Several areas in Philadelphia have long been seen as “food deserts” — that is, low-income areas without easy access to nutritious foods.

Whether Philadelphians’ diets are a result of accessibility, affordability or simply taste, bad eating habits have led to some alarming statistics — in 2010, 66 percent of adults and 40 percent of children in Philadelphia were overweight or obese, according to a 2011 report by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

There’s no doubt things have gotten bad. But now, perhaps, Philadelphia has nowhere to go but up. ••

The Healthy Corner Store Initiative

Flanagan, whose store is located at 1440 E. Columbia Ave., is one of many proprietors of what’s become a Philadelphia landmark — the corner store.

In most of these stores, chips, candy and processed foods come cheap and easy to shoppers. But lean meats and fruits and vegetables? Not so much.

“It’s a very hard thing to obtain,” Flanagan said of fresh, healthy food. “It’s easier to sell things with a longer shelf life.”

And with some 2,500 corner stores in Philadelphia, many city residents simply have no access to any other food source.

But Flanagan, like many other storeowners in the city, is selling healthier food with the help of the Healthy Corner Stores Initiative.

The Food Trust, a nonprofit that works to increase food access for low-income Americans, has developed the Healthy Corner Stores Initiative in partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s “Get Healthy Philly” campaign.

Brianna Almaguer Sandoval, senior associate for The Food Trust, said there are currently 630 stores in the network that have added at least four new healthy products to their shelves. One of those was Flanagan’s deli.

So far, Flanagan said, she’s seen that her healthy food is selling well.

“People are very happy,” she said. “More children are choosing grapes and watermelon and stuff.”

So why might a storeowner not want to become a part of the network?

Sandoval said that part of the reason might be the perception that customers don’t want healthy products. Or it could be that some healthy food simply is more expensive.

She said that Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research is collecting data to determine whether access to healthy food in corner stores really changes people’s eating habits.

For now, storeowners like Flanagan are simply working to give their customers more choices and make them aware of healthier products.

“There’s not enough education,” Flanagan said. “A banana is much cheaper than a candy bar. It’s definitely [about] educating people.”

Learn more about the Healthy Corner Store Initiative or make your store a part of the network by visiting thefoodtrust.org/php/programs/corner.store.campaign.php. ••

ShopRite’s registered dietitian

Stephanie Perez has a unique job — she proves to shoppers that nutrition and affordability aren’t mutually exclusive.

“You can eat healthy on a low budget,” she said. “Educating people on nutritious foods that cost less will help.”

As of May this year, Perez is the registered dietitian on staff at the ShopRite grocery store at 3745 Aramingo Ave.

“A lot of people in this area don’t have direct access to health care or a dietician,” she said. “People know they need to become healthier, but they’re not sure how to go about it. I’m able to bridge that gap.”

Perez said she conducts “tasting tours,” during which she walks through the store’s aisles with customers to help them pick out healthier options that they can taste at the end. She also conducts what might be the key factor in educating shoppers — recipe demonstrations.

Perez said the demos aim to show shoppers how to make familiar recipes with healthy changes. She’ll make a salsa with canned or jarred tomatoes that are free of added salt, or turkey burgers.

She said the cost of products is important, and noted that foods like beans and low-sodium canned vegetables are healthy and inexpensive options.

“Every recipe I do, I include items that are on sale that week. People that try it are more likely to purchase it because it’s something they can afford,” she said.

All of Perez’s services are free of charge. To learn more about them and find out when her recipe demonstrations or other services are available, call 267–566–7538, or email her at stephanie.perez@wakefern.com. ••

PCA’s free produce vouchers

On July 9 this year, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging launched its annual free food voucher program. Vouchers for $20 worth of locally grown produce and vegetables were made available to over 36,000 low-income seniors.

Sue Gibson, nutrition manager for PCA, said that vouchers are available at approximately 30 senior centers or communities and at PCA itself, at 642 N. Broad St.

Eligible seniors receive four $5 vouchers that can be used until November 30 this year at 13 farmer’s markets in North Philadelphia, as well as dozens of others around the city.

“It’s all part of an effort to get more fresh fruits and vegetables [to seniors],” Gibson said. “It’s one drop in the bucket, yes, but they are so excited to be getting these vouchers, they’ll stand in line for an hour.”

St. Anne’s Senior Center, at 2607 E. Cumberland St., received 500 produce vouchers to distribute. Its members can still pick up vouchers through July 20 from 10 a.m. until noon.

Cass Jenkins, 69, has been a member of the center for 10 years. She said she’s been collecting the produce vouchers for five or six years.

She said that though it’s not much, the $20 in vouchers does supplement her diet. When asked if she eats healthier because of the produce vouchers, she nodded.

“No doubt about that,” she said. “I only started eating some stuff — like a cup of vegetables — since I came here.”

But does she consider Philadelphia a healthy city?

“It can be,” she said. “It’s hard, but this is helping.”

To learn more about distribution sites and income guidelines, call the PCA helpline at 215–765–9040 or visit www.pcacares.org. ••

Greensgrow Farms’ LIFE initiative

Greensgrow Farms, at 2501 E. Cumberland St., began the third year of is annual LIFE initiative on July 14. LIFE — Local Initiative for Food Education — aims to “help serve the underserved,” said Samantha Kelly, LIFE program coordinator at Greensgrow.

The underserved, in this case, are Philadelphians who receive SNAP benefits. In partnership with The Food Trust, Greensgrow offers a discounted farm share of approximately eight food items every week for $13. The program runs until September 28 this year.

Kelly said Greensgrow offers food education and food preparation training on site in its outdoor prep kitchen each week for LIFE participants.

“If they don’t know how to prepare this food, it’s going to sit and go bad,” Kelly said.

Rebecca Frimmer, general manager at Greensgrow, said the food classes put a new twist on a familiar recipe. While staying for the food lesson isn’t required, it is encouraged, and Kelly said most people stick around for the social aspect.

In the LIFE initiative’s first week, Kelly said that 18 families had signed up. But with some SNAP beneficiaries only receiving $14 a month, Kelly said some that turned down participation in the program did cite cost as a barrier.

How can that be helped?

ldquo;The classes are a big part of it,” Frimmer said. “The recipes are budget-friendly, and we show them how to really stretch those dollars.”

To sign up, contact life@greensgrow.org or call (267) 496–0148 and ask for Dee. ••

Farms to Families

Now in its second year, Farms to Families is run by St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. The program distributes boxes of food year-round from local farms priced at wholesale levels –a $10 box contains about $20 worth of food; a $15 box contains about $30 worth of food — and anyone in the city can pay for the boxes with cash, credit, debit or SNAP benefits.

The boxes are filled with local fruits and vegetables. Patrons can pick up the boxes at five distribution sites in eastern north Philadelphia.

Ann Hoskins Brown, program director at St. Christopher’s, said that in January, Farms to Families started working with physicians at the hospital to have them write prescriptions for the program for overweight children. A doctor can write a child a prescription for Farms to Families that provides a $5 discount.

Essentially, then, that child’s family could purchase about $30 worth of food for $10.

She said she does think the program is having the desired effect.

“We are finding that it does change behavior, but that it is slow,” she said. “People are telling us anecdotally that it’s changing their eating habits.”

She said many other organizations involved with providing access to produce and healthy foods are struggling with actually getting people to come purchase the goods.

“It’s not ‘Field of Dreams,’” she said. “If you build it, they don’t care.”

To combat that mentality, she said education is vital. Farms to Families distribution sites do offer food preparation classes, she said, to entice people to stop by.

“We’re looking to turn the classes into a chance to taste foods and ask questions. If they smell what’s being cooked, they come find it,” she said.

Brown said Philadelphia is most definitely on its way to becoming a healthier city.

“It’s one of the centers for creative responses to all of these issues. We’re really looked at as a model on a national level.”

Solutions though, she said, could take time.

“It’s taken a couple of generations for it to get this bad,” she said. “It could take a couple of generations for it to get much better.”

To learn more about Farms to Families and pickup locations, contact Hoskins-Brown at 215–568–1126 or via email at ahb@scfchildren.org. ••

Star Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215–354–3113, or at mjamison@bmsphilly.com.