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
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
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
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.
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