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Turning a healthy corner in the Bayview

San Francisco is known as a Mecca for conscious foodies – with organic farmers markets, gourmet food trucks, and six Whole Foods supermarkets within the seven-by-seven square-mile city limits. But this abundance doesn’t reach everyone. In a lot of low-income areas, it can be difficult to find fresh and healthy food.

The southeastern neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point, for example, is known as a food desert. That’s a term that’s been coined to describe a neighborhood with low or no access to fresh or healthy food. Bayview-Hunters Point does have a few full-service grocery stores, but there are five times as many corner stores, most of which sell little or no fresh food. And there are consequences: compared to other San Francisco districts, Bayview residents suffer from diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease at disproportionately high rates. There’s a growing movement to change those conditions, but not necessarily by building more grocery stores. Instead, reformers are meeting people where they already shop: at the corner store.

Ford’s Grocery is a tiny place – just 38 by 22 feet – at the corner of Oakdale and Lane Streets. Kathy Ford, who runs the store, says her parents opened it in 1971. When her parents started the business, they sold a lot of fresh food – sandwiches, fruits, and fresh fish on Fridays.

Ford took over from her parents about 15 years ago, but she says the demand for fresh food began to wane long before that, around the mid-80s. The store’s heavy wooden shelves filled up with packaged snacks, the refrigerators held sodas and beer, and a crowded rack of potato chips sat in the center of the space.

This was around the time that crack cocaine came into the neighborhood.

“That started the destruction of the family unit,” Ford says. “Families not cooking, and families relying on fast food.”

But recently, there have been changes at the store: the old wooden shelves have been replaced with open, clean metal. And what’s on those shelves has changed, too. Fruits and vegetables now occupy an open display at the center of the store, and healthy items like whole wheat bread and 100 percent juice are on the shelves.

The renovation of Ford’s Grocery is part of the Healthy Corner Stores project. It's an initiative of the non-profit Southeast Food Access (SEFA) and is funded by a grant from Kaiser Permanente. The goal is to bring healthier food to residents of neighborhood by collaborating with corner store owners to change their offerings.

SEFA employs a small cadre of neighborhood residents, called the Food Guardians, to work on food and nutrition issues. They’re based in an office off busy 3rd Street, in the same building as a methadone clinic for substance abuse treatment. Food Guardian Antonia Williams, who’s lived in the Bayview all her life, says problems with food access are intertwined with other issues in the neighborhood. For instance, with the fear of violence right outside some people’s doors, shopping for food comes down to what’s most convenient, not necessarily what’s healthy.

“It’s kind of like, when you’re here and you’re facing those things, it doesn’t really go through your mind in that moment like, I want a fresh apple," she says.  “It’s: ‘I’m hungry, my stomach [is] growling, I gotta get something to eat.’ So you’re gonna go get it at what you can get.”

She says that’s why the Healthy Corner Stores project is important, because they’re trying to reach people who might not normally venture past the end of their block to get food. Working directly with corner stores means meeting residents where they already shop.

So for the last two years, the Food Guardians have undertaken a survey of stores in the neighborhood. They developed a set of retail standards to evaluate each store’s offerings in areas including: types of food, tobacco and alcohol sales, advertisements for junk food, fair labor, and community investment. Based on how they scored, corner stores earned ratings from zero to three apples.

This wasn’t a totally new thing for the neighborhood. From 2002 to 2009, a program called Good Neighbor also surveyed food access and worked with corner stores to bring in more fresh produce. Food Guardian coordinator Tracey Patterson says it was a good program, but that the changes didn’t always last.

“For some of the stores, when the grant funds ended, they didn’t have the business sustainability to be able to continue to sell healthy foods,” she says. “They had the healthy foods placed there, and they sold them while they were there, but they weren’t able to continue to integrate it into their stores.”

The Food Guardians also looked for inspiration in other cities – like Philadelphia, where in the past three years, more than 600 corner stores have added healthier food to their shelves. Learning from projects like that, the Food Guardians knew they needed to work closely with store owners to be sure they felt good about the changes.

One of the ways they took care of store owners’ needs was by bringing in food retail consultants Sutti Associates, who have worked with large chains like Whole Foods and Safeway. The consultants could help plan and implement healthy changes in a way that would also maximize an owner’s space and profit.

Sutti Associates came out to Kathy Ford’s store to help oversee the makeover of Ford’s Grocery. Ford says that was one of the things that helped soothe her worries about making such big changes. She also says she feels good about using her role as a businessperson to help facilitate positive changes in the community.

She tells the story of one little girl who came in recently and was excited to see the ripe mangoes on display in the center of the store. The girl told her mom she wanted the mango instead of candy. “In a way, I see it as a change in the store, but also a change in attitude – about health, about the health of our children and the health of our neighbors,” Ford says.

The Food Guardians’ goal is ensuring access to fresh, healthy food for everyone in Bayview Hunters Point. And with the Healthy Corner Stores project, that goal is getting closer – one mango at a time.