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Shaking Up The Menu At Hartford's Small Grocers

April 2, 2006
By JERRY JONES, Courant Staff Writer

Chances are that you shop for groceries in a big chain supermarket with a quarter-acre of fresh produce and piles of obscure cheeses. Many Hartford residents don't have this option. They end up at a tiny corner market or bodega, where good food is at a premium. It's not a healthy situation.

The reason many city dwellers rely on smaller stores is that Hartford has only one full-size supermarket, located on the city's western edge, along with a handful of medium-size grocery stores and "limited assortment" discounters that sell a medley of items stacked in their original shipping cartons. The bodegas are readily available in every neighborhood.

Forget the broccoli rabe and Brussels sprouts that shoppers take for granted in the suburbs. In many corner markets, it's hard to find a decent selection of boxed pasta or canned soup. Healthier items such as whole wheat bread and skim milk are even greater rarities.

What's not in short supply is junk food. Shelves are overflowing with unhealthy snacks of every flavor and variety, suggesting that space constraints alone do not explain why normal meal products can be so difficult to buy.

The reason corner markets and bodegas sell a lot of junk food is largely a matter of economics. Snacks and sodas sell quickly and have a higher profit margin than more substantive food items. And thanks to the miracle of polysorbate 60 and other preservatives, items like Hostess HoHos don't go bad for months.

Try that with bread or bananas. Many snack food distributors are even willing to send drivers out to keep their sections orderly and replenished, which is welcome assistance when the store owner also serves as the chief stock clerk.

Hartford has more than 130 neighborhood grocery retailers. Despite their deficiencies, these stores are a vital resource in Hartford's food economy, since most supermarket chains have abandoned the city.

Store owners work long hours, often for meager earnings. Crime can be an issue. Family members provide the workforce and the family name often doubles as the store's name. The overwhelming majority of these stores are run by dedicated people who work hard to do well for themselves and their customers.

Yet with the lack of shopping options, the inventory decisions made by small stores have a big impact on the city. Hartford is facing a public health crisis driven largely by diet-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

Based on the Hartford Health Survey, adult diabetes rates in the city are 62 percent higher than the rest of the nation and hypertension rates are 40 percent higher. Although junk food isn't the only reason for these medical conditions, the scarcity of better food choices is a major barrier to turning these trends around.

A trip to the corner market should provide the basic things you need for a normal meal. Access to nutritious food is even more important for people who must manage these types of health problems through special diets.

Fortunately, with a little encouragement, many store owners are willing to commit themselves to sell healthier products. They recognize that Americans are increasingly concerned about what they eat, in Hartford like anywhere else, and want to serve their customers better. But solving these problems will require cooperation.

On Wednesday, store owners and community residents will join together for a Healthy Food Fair at St. Augustine Church on Campfield Avenue in Hartford from 6 to 7:30 p.m.. This event will kick off a new collaboration in which store owners agree to reduce their snack food inventories to make more room for regular groceries.

Advocates such as the Hartford Food System will support these stores. We'll direct them to wholesalers who can provide healthy food, and survey residents about what kinds of food they want local stores to stock. We'll recognize those stores doing the right thing through a Healthy Food Retailer certification program, and work with the city and neighborhood revitalization zones to help these businesses thrive.

This effort is also being led by neighborhood groups, merchant associations and health professionals, who all want to see improvements to Hartford's local food environment.

Where you shop shouldn't determine what you can eat. Urban residents deserve better choices. Through partnerships that find common ground between the needs of store owners and their customers, we can expand access to healthy food.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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