Healthy Corner Stores Initiative in Southside ‘Food Deserts’ Leads to Spike in Produce Sales

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Roseanna Garza / Rivard Report

Gas N Go on the corner of South Presa and Southcross Boulevard stocks a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables for customers as part of the Healthy Corner Stores Initiative.

When you walk into the Gas N Go on the corner of South Presa and Southcross Boulevard, the first thing you see is a wall of shelves fully stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables.

The store is participating in the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, a pilot program in City Council District 3 aimed at increasing healthy food access in areas where it is difficult to obtain.

Since launching in April, sales of fruits and vegetables have increased almost 600 percent, from 612 pounds sold in corner stores on San Antonio’s South Side in April to more than 4,100 pounds at the end of July, said Dr. Anil Mangla, associate professor and director of public health and research at the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine, located in District 3 at Brooks City Base.

“The growth in sales of [fresh fruits and vegetables] is substantial. It is far beyond what we expected, and this is just based on the four-month report,” Mangla said. “Our projection for the end of October is looking at almost 17,000 pounds of fresh produce sales.”

First proposed by the Food Policy Council of San Antonio (FPCSA), a nonprofit dedicated to addressing unhealthy food systems, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative is made possible by $50,000 in funding from District 3 to the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine, which partnered with five local stores in designated “food deserts” – areas where there is no grocery store within a mile radius.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) championed this project for residents in her district, Mangla said.

Director of Health Collaborative Dr. Anil Mangla.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Dr. Anil Mangla, founder of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative

Participating corner stores are able to buy produce from distributors at 10 percent of the cost, and the UIW School of Osteopathic Medicine covers the remaining 90 percent with program funding, Mangla said. “Stores are now restocking fresh fruits and vegetables [weekly], which wasn’t happening in the past.”

Prior to April, Gas N Go did not sell any fresh produce in its store, but now has shelves stocked with potatoes, onions, bell peppers, cantaloupe, apples, bananas, and more, cashier Bernie Olivo told the Rivard Report. And there has been an increase in overall sales at the store since April when the initiative began.

“We now see a lot more people coming in at the end of the day to get food,” maybe because it’s close to dinner time, and they are getting off work, Olivo said. “We weren’t slow before, but you can tell we are busier now and we almost always sell out of the produce we have here. Our prices are cheaper than H-E-B.”

Mangla said one way they are measuring program success is by measuring by the pound how much food is being thrown away. Partner company Compost Queens weighs out what is disposed of and turns it into soil which is then used at Garcia Street Urban Farm.

Before the Healthy Corner Store Initiative began, stores in the area that sold fresh produce were throwing away around six percent of it each month, but monthly reports through July show the amount of waste gradually reduced to almost zero in July, Mangla said.

“What those numbers show us is that the produce is both affordable and accessible, which were the two barriers we were facing when getting healthy foods to residents in these areas,” Manga said, noting in short, “the program is working.”

Ana Herrera stopped by the Gas N Go on Wednesday afternoon when the San Antonio Food Bank was doing a cooking demonstration outside on how to make a healthy cantaloupe salad with ingredients found in the store. The Food Bank partners with the Healthy Corner Store Initiative to provide cooking demonstrations in the stores to help customers learn how to incorporate healthy foods into their favorite recipes.

Herrera said that she started going to the store more often now that it is selling fresh produce because she passes it every day on her way home from work.

“I was really surprised that they sell fresh food now because I have been coming here for some time and so it came as a surprise. A good surprise,” Herrera said. “I have a car, but I use it to get to work and I have to pay for gas, so going to the grocery store isn’t always good, and this store is on my way home. If I am going to cook I can come in here and find things to make something [more complete] for dinner.”

On Wednesday, Herrera was stopping for snacks to take to work. “I can also add a banana or an apple easily if I want to because it’s here. I didn’t have that option before.”

The Healthy Corner Store Initiative has received ongoing funding and plans to add seven more stores to the project in the coming year, Mangla said.

“Our goal has always been to alleviate the stress of finding healthy foods. And you can tell by just how much is being sold, that this is something the community needed and wanted,” Mangla said.

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