A study published by the United States Department of Agriculture in 2017 reports that 11.8 percent of families in the U.S., or approximately 15 million households, have experienced food insecurity within the past year. Although nationwide this percentage is gradually decreasing, surveys administered by Hunger Free America also report that food insecurity in Philadelphia has increased by 22 percent from 2015-17.
Food insecurity causes both physical health problems like malnutrition and mental health problems like depression or anxiety. In order to combat these problems, the federal government has implemented several food assistance programs to improve low-income families’ access to more nutritious food options, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Some of these federal programs intersect with local food assistance efforts in innovative ways. Corner stores for example, which are conventionally associated with nutrition deficient pre-packaged foods, are being revolutionized in Philadelphia! The Food Trust, a national nonprofit organization, has sought to reduce the food insecurity dilemma in Philadelphia by improving the quality of food available in corner stores.
For residents of low-wealth neighborhoods, corner stores can be an important source of food. According to a study reported in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the average public school student in Philadelphia consumes nearly 350 calories per visit and visits a corner store five times a week, often multiple times a day.
Thus in 2010, the Food Trust — in partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health — started the Healthy Corner Store Initiative in order to increase the number of healthy options available at corner stores. Low-income neighborhoods are dependent on the low prices offered by corner stores, so it would be a waste of resources to invest in healthier options in bigger chains of supermarkets that are not accessible to those families in the first place.
The goal of the HCSI was to improve healthy food access and incentivize small business owners to sell healthier options by making it more profitable. This initiative targeted low-income neighborhoods primarily because they are at the highest risk for food insecurity and selected businesses that were already WIC and SNAP certified to further increase accessibility.
Through a series of marketing strategy workshops, strategic investments in equipment and opportunities for networking, the Food Trust facilitated transformations of 40 corner stores. In order to make nutrition-rich options more feasible for store owners, the Food Trust connected them with local farmers, urban gardens and fresh produce suppliers, which not only increased access to healthy foods but also invested money back into the community.
Every two to three months, officials from the Healthy Corner Store Initiatives conduct evaluations to ensure that the stores are meeting the guidelines for options they should be selling.
Targeting corner stores proved to be an effective strategy in Philadelphia as it resulted in benefits for both the store owners and the community. Owners noticed an increase in both profits and demand for healthy products, which shows that poor diets in low-income communities are directly correlated to lack of accessibility.
Regarding the community, there was a noticeable decrease in food waste after encouraging the purchase of whole foods and cases of childhood obesity in Philadelphia school children significantly decreased when combated with education and access to healthier options. While the reduction in childhood obesity can be attributed to multiple factors, corner stores serve as a source for a large portion of students’ diets so any drastic change in diet should be reflected in their weight. Further, the demand for healthier food options was so large that the Food Trust expanded the program from the initial 40 locations to over 600 in Philadelphia and is connecting with corner stores in New Jersey as well.
The success of this initiative shows that people will support the local food economy if given the option to. It is important to note that the success of the solution is reliant on the organization being familiar with the community and its framework.
The food insecurity problem will continue to remain prevalent for the present day but could very well be on the out in the near future, marking a large step forward for the city of Philadelphia.