The need to improve access to healthy food is not a new issue in North Carolina; the nearly 350 food deserts across 80 counties impact 1.5 million North Carolinians. The current companion bills in the North Carolina House and Senate that would establish a Healthy Corner Store Initiative are a step in the right direction, but they are by no means the first step. These critical milestones in the policy process were made possible by a series of other efforts that have occurred throughout the state over the past few years.
There are also more than 6,000 small retail stores throughout the state, many of which sell highly processed items that are low in nutrients. I live in Eastern North Carolina where these food deserts exist, and have seen how healthy corner store pilot initiatives improved healthy food access in my community.
Five years ago, partners in my community began exploring ways to improve access to healthy foods for residents in Pitt County, which is mostly rural. At that time, most of the healthy corner store work across the nation was occurring in more urban or suburban areas. The visionary and “can-do” attitude of the Pitt County partners led them to examine best practices from that work, as well as national models from The Food Trust, and then figure out ways to tailor those practices to local contexts. Successful strategies included: improving availability of healthy foods in markets already rooted in the community (rather than trying to attract or create new ones); learning along with and providing support to store owners about regulations for selling healthy foods (e.g., which produce can only be sold by pound vs. by piece); and building direct partnerships with farmers and suppliers that were just as strong as relationships with retailers.
These lessons are evident in the proposed Healthy Corner Store Initiative for the state. If these bills pass, a $1 million fund will be created within the Department of Commerce to improve availability, affordability and accessibility of healthy foods at retailers within areas of the state with poor food access. The Initiative will build upon existing retail outlet infrastructure as well as target areas of highest need and opportunity based on community assessments. Along with improving health and health outcomes for North Carolinians, the Initiative aims to support and benefit small retail store owners, and local farmers and fishers throughout the state. Specific strategies to achieve this include: providing store owners with equipment (such as refrigeration and shelving) to stock nutrient-dense foods; providing technical and marketing assistance to small retailers to promote the healthy foods they sell; and supporting partnerships between store owners and farmers and fishers in order to balance supply and demand as well as expand market opportunities.
Also encouraging is that the previous healthy corner store efforts in North Carolina communities seem to have helped build demand. A recent poll found that more than 70% of North Carolina’s registered voters support a state-funded Healthy Corner Store Initiative, and 76% think state and local governments should provide training and incentives to encourage corner store owners to stock and sell more healthy foods and beverages. Successful passage of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative would certainly have a significant positive impact for all North Carolinians.
It would also give well-deserved acknowledgement to the local community partners across the state who piloted early efforts and contributed to the process that helped make it happen.