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Survey: Healthy Foods Absent from City Convenience Stores

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A survey of convenience stores in the south west section of Rochester has revealed that 95% offer little or no healthy foods.  As these stores often serve as an expedient source of food for families in the area, these results have consequences for the health of city residents and point to one of the underlying causes in the growing rate of obesity in adults and children in inner city Rochester

The number of obese adults and children has increased dramatically over the past two decades, a condition that places these individuals at risk for a host of diseases including coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and even some cancers.  This epidemic has been closely linked to social norms and environments that promotes excessive food intake and discourages physical activity.  One of the elements necessary to counter these influences and establish healthy eating patterns – particularly in children – is access to healthy foods.

The survey was conducted by Cynthia Arvizo, a Molecular Genetics and French major from El Paso, Texas, who will be entering her senior year at the University of Rochester in the fall.  Arvizo was based out of the Healthy Home, a model home located on West Main Street in Rochester that was established by the University or Rochester Medical Center and several community partners in 2006 to serve as a community resource for home environmental health hazards, health, and nutrition.  The SouthWest Area Neighborhood Association (SWAN), the organization that now operates the home, oversaw the project and Arvizo was sponsored by the University of Rochester Urban Fellows program – a ten week summer fellowship designed to emphasize civic engagement and promote learning about urban issues. 

The survey focused on Sector 4, a section of Rochester that is comprised of the 19th Ward, Plymouth-Exchange, Changing of the Scenes, Neighborhood United, and the SouthWest Area Neighborhood Association.  The area has approximately 32,000 residents.  The closest major grocery store is a Tops Market on West Ave on the western end of the city.  The 52 food stores serving the area consist of a combination of convenience stores, mom and pop grocery stores, fish and meat markets, and stores that offered both food and other retail items (e.g. pharmacies).  41 stores agreed to participate in the survey.

Arvizo, accompanied by interns from the Monroe County Work Experience Program, visited the stores, spoke with the owners, and filled out a lengthy questionnaire on the stores’ contents.  The questionnaire noted whether or not fresh, canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, low fat milk, whole wheat bread, and low fat deli meats were available, whether or not the food had expired, and the price. The survey also noted the presence of advertising for alcohol and tobacco products.

The stores were assigned a score based on the survey and coded into three categories.  Red meant that the store offered little or no fruits and vegetables, offered whole milk or no milk at all, and only white bread.  71% of stores in the survey were coded red.  Another 24% were coded yellow, meaning that they had slightly more options, and only 5% were coded green, indicating that they offered a wide range of healthy food.   The survey results also show that 85% of the stores did not offer fresh fruit, 76% sold only white bread or no bread at all, and 65% offered either whole or no milk. 

University of Rochester Pediatrician Stephen Cook, M.D. says the study points to the need to address the underlying social and environmental factors linked to obesity, namely eating behaviors and physical activity.  A diet of fruits and vegetables in particular is critical said Cook, who was not involved in the survey.  This is not just for their nutritional value but because fruits and vegetables have less caloric density compared to the processed foods with high levels of high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrated oils, and other additives that tend to fill the shelves of convenience stores.  

Access is a critical issue in urban environments where socio-economic factors and transportation issues are barriers to frequent visits to a supermarket.  Without healthy food options close at hand, the advice of a physician to adopt a healthier lifestyle becomes difficult if not infeasible.   

“If we send a child with asthma into a neighborhood where there is a lot of smoke and pollution, we know their asthma is going to be bad,” said Cook.  “Similarly, if a child lives in an environment with a high density of fast food and convenience stores and unsafe neighborhoods and parks then they are at significantly higher risk of becoming obese.”

Even now, community efforts are underway to give residents more access to healthy foods.  SWAN has partnered with the Montgomery Neighborhood Center to operate a produce stand which sells fresh fruits and vegetables 5 days a week.  The food is provided by FoodLink which acquires its produce from Upstate farmers and the organization’s farm in Penfield.  

SWAN also plans to begin operating a mobile produce stand in August which will allow the organization to bring food directly to apartment complexes and senior centers as well as other locations throughout Sector 4.  SWAN has recently partnered with several other organizations to create the Westside Community Food System which plans to create and operate a system of neighborhood gardens, produces stands and farmers markets and establish community education programs to teach about healthy food options. And SWAN and the University of Rochester Medical Center are exploring ways to replicate the convenience store survey on a citywide basis and evaluate the shopping patterns city residents. 

Furthermore, the awareness raised by the survey itself is already having an impact.   When questioned, some store owners expressed a desire to sell more healthy food but pointed to such barriers as lack of space and access to produce that they could sell at a profit.  However, one of the stores that participated in the survey – a 7-11 on Thurston Rd – has agreed to set up a produce stand in the store to sell fruits and vegetables provided by FoodLink. 

“Access to healthy food is a problem that is ultimately going to require a community solution,” said David Pihl, employment coordinator for SWAN.  “We now have a better understanding of why it is so difficult for city residents to get healthy foods, the challenge now is to both encourage these stores to provide healthy options and provide them the means to do so.” 

Media Contact

Mark Michaud

(585) 273-4790

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