Oases in the food deserts

Another Daily News Editorial that may be of interest to Earth to Philly readers - especially given our previous coverage of the issue.

Apples and Oranges at Corner Stores?

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FIRST LADY Michelle Obama's visit to Philadelphia on Friday will focus on a critical component of her campaign against obesity - access to healthy food.

And that has more to do with income than it should: millions of low-income and minority families live in what have been tagged "food deserts," areas that lack supermarkets or other places to buy fresh, healthy food.

Which is why Mrs. Obama is headed our way. She will visit supermarkets here to highlight the success of the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative - which is the model for President Obama's plan to spend $400 million to leverage private money for grants to build or renovate supermarkets in underserved locations.

But "food deserts" are not empty. In fact, they are dotted with thousands of corner stores that carry little healthy food but a lot of empty calories. In fact, the Food Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to provide access to healthy food, says that there are seven to eight corner convenience stores within three to four blocks of most schools.

The snacks that kids buy there add hundreds of calories to their daily diets, according to a study done here by Temple University and the Food Trust and published last year in the journal Pediatrics.

The researchers surveyed 800 purchases made by fourth-, fifth- and six-graders. They found that the kids spent an average $1.07 on each visit - and bought an average 360 calories of junk food. More than a third of the kids visited twice a day.

The lure of potato chips and "Hugs," fruit-flavored sugar water, can undo the efforts of Philadelphia public schools to get kids to eat healthy. The school district has eliminated sugared sodas from school vending machines and no longer fries any food. Also, many schools have strong nutrition education programs.

But even if a kid has developed a taste for fruit and bottled water, there may be no place to buy healthy snacks, or to buy them as cheaply as junk.

Selling healthy food, especially fresh and perishable food, costs more to do. It requires more refrigeration and extra shelf space, which may prove unaffordable to many small-business owners.

Enter the Food Trust's "Healthy Corner Store Initiative," a program that works on both supply and demand with the goal of cutting about 200 calories from kids' daily snacks.

The program works in the schools to educate students - the potential customers - about making healthy snack choices. The program also includes a "Corner Store Network," which now has 40 stores. Member stores are eligible to receive refrigeration units to display fresh fruit salads and more shelving to display other healthy snacks. The Network also provides marketing materials with a SnackinFresh logo for healthy, affordable-snack labeling, as well as consulting services to help stores increase their profits. A Web site, www.snackinfresh.org, includes maps of five Philadelphia schools and the nearby stores that sell healthy snacks.

Even if many more supermarkets are built in Philadelphia neighborhoods, many families will still be doing a lot of shopping at corner stores. So it's important that those stores carry things like low-fat milk, fresh bread, and fruits and vegetables. As a notable goal, making kids healthier is no small potatoes.

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