When a group of community do-gooders asked her to add fresh fruit, wheat bread and low-fat milk to her tried-and-true inventory of chips and soda, Antonia Helena was pretty sure what would happen.
"I thought nobody would buy," said Helena, who owns the Williams Grocery on Sigourney Street in Hartford.
Two years later, Helena's deli case offers fresh tomatoes, Granny Smith and Delicious apples and red and green peppers. The selection does not compare to the produce aisle of a supermarket, but it's a start.
The potato chip rack has been pushed back, replaced by a display of trail mix. And to her surprise, Helena now sells more wheat bread than Wonder — even though a wheat loaf costs 40 cents more.
Helena is a pioneer in a grass-roots public health experiment aimed at stemming the urban epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease by focusing on small neighborhood markets and offering residents an alternative to the high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods that contribute to those conditions.
Two years ago, the Hartford Food System recruited six local grocers who agreed to shift 5 percent of their inventory a year away from junk food and into groceries that can include anything from cans of soup to fresh bananas. Among the items they promised to stock: wheat bread, low-fat milk, vegetables and 100 percent fruit juice.
By last summer, 40 stores had signed on and on average had reduced their junk food inventory by 8 percent. More stores also reported stocking low-fat milk and wheat bread, compared with their inventories in 2007.
"The intention is to recognize that even if people want to eat better, in certain neighborhoods you can't find healthy foods," said Jerry Jones, executive director of the Hartford Food System, a community organization dedicated to improving nutrition in Hartford. "It doesn't matter if the doctor is telling people to eat less salt or lower-fat foods if they can't find them."
While poverty is one reason people in Hartford and other cities often choose low-cost, highly processed foods such as macaroni-and-cheese, fatty meats and sugary drinks, transportation and availability are two more.
Hartford, which ranks among the poorest cities in the nation, has only one supermarket, a cumbersome bus system, and many people who do not own cars. An average round-trip taxi ride to a suburban supermarket costs $20, so many people limit their major grocery shopping to once a month.
That leaves the city's 150 corner markets, or bodegas, for the daily supply of staples and fresh foods.
To help the shopkeepers move the healthier groceries off their shelves, the Food System teamed up with researchers at the University of Connecticut to learn what neighborhood consumers think is healthy and what foods they would like the grocers to stock.
The information is shared with shopkeepers who in the past have complained that healthy food does not last and that often they have tried offering fresh fruits and vegetables, only to throw them out when they rot on the shelves.
"It's not like a Twinkie that lasts for 40 years in your stomach," said Liam Fitzgerald, a UConn graduate student who is helping with the project.
Helena said the only fresh produce she stocked was carrots before she joined the program, known as the Healthy Retailer Initiative. She said she has been pleasantly surprised to be doing a brisk business in the fruits and vegetables that she now picks up at the Hartford Regional Market several times a week.
While her market still sells a lot of soda, she said she has learned that many of her customers had been looking for healthier groceries. She also said she was surprised to learn that so many health problems could be traced back, at least in part, to a bad diet.
With a grant from The Patrick and Catherine Weldon Donaghue Medical Research Foundation, UConn researchers plan to measure changes in the participating stores against a control group of stores that are not being encouraged to change their inventories.
"I hope we [will] change the food landscape in Hartford," said Katie Martin, a research associate at UConn and co-principal investigator on the grocery store project. "There are markets on almost every corner. If we can build the quality and quantity of healthy food, I think in the long term it will help the health outcomes of people in Hartford."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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