By Morgan Wittman Gramann, Managing Director, NC Alliance for Health
North Carolina is in the midst of a childhood health crisis. Children across the state are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and other chronic diseases because they lack access to healthy, nutritious food. Families want to be healthy, but too many simply have nowhere to buy affordable lean meats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
In North Carolina, grocery stores don’t exist in many low-income communities, leaving children and their families without a reliable source of nutritious food. In fact, North Carolina has 349 such communities, designated as food deserts by the USDA. This means residents in these communities have to travel more than 10 miles in rural areas, and more than a mile in urban areas, to reach a grocery store. Without access to healthy foods, a nutritious diet and good health are out of reach, and as a result, diet-related diseases – especially among children – are on the rise.
When grocery stores aren’t accessible, residents turn to corner and convenience stores where the choices are often limited to packaged food high in fat, sodium, and sugar. Additionally, many convenience stores are located near schools, making them a likely place for youth to purchase food. One study showed that more than 40 percent of elementary school students shopped at a corner store twice daily, often purchasing chips, candy, and soda.
The good news is that there is a way to give children in food desert areas access to affordable, healthy food. The Healthy Corner Store Initiative has the potential to decrease the percentage of children who are at risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
With a $1 million appropriation and the passage of HB 250/SB 296, the Healthy Food Small Retailer/Corner Store Act, the NC Department of Agriculture will work with local health departments to assess food access and insecurity across the state. Local health departments will then connect with store owners to assess interest in participating in the Initiative. Once the store owners sign an agreement, the health departments can provide shelving, refrigeration, education on food safety and handling, marketing and promotional materials, and will connect the store owners with local farmers and fishermen, where applicable. With these connections, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative will not only help children across the state gain access to healthy foods, it will also aid small business, and will provide additional markets for farmers and fishermen. It really is a win-win-win.
We know this model works! Pilot projects in Pitt, Davidson, and Forsyth Counties prove that not only do store owners want to offer healthy options to their customers, but customers want to have access to healthy food and will buy those foods once they are made available. Many store owners reported higher profits on the healthy food than on snacks like soda and chips.
If the Healthy Corner Store Initiative can save even one child from a life of chronic disease, wouldn’t it be worth it? More than 75 percent of North Carolina voters think so and it’s easy to see why. The adverse health effects of food insecurity not only cost North Carolina children their health, but also contribute to the estimated $54 billion in healthcare costs due to diet-related disease.
With one in five North Carolinians facing food insecurity this year, food access issues will continue until more leaders take serious notice of this policy issue. It is our job to make that happen. HB 250/SB 296, the Healthy Food Small Retailer/Corner Store Act, which will create the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, can make healthy food a reality for children across North Carolina. HB 250 passed the full House last year, and was included in the House’s final budget. This year, the NC Alliance for Health, along with our members and partners, will work to pass this legislation through the Senate.
For more information about the Healthy Corner Store Initiative and to take action please visit www.ncallianceforhealth.org/healthy-food-access.