By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation staff writer

Chip Boyles, project leader for Healthy Corner Store Initiative.
Chip Boyles, project leader for Healthy Corner Store Initiative.

Chip Boyles, project leader for Healthy Corner Store Initiative.

It’s funny, the little things in life we take for granted. Say, for example, the simple task of strolling into a grocery store to pick up a few bananas, or a head of broccoli for tonight’s dinner.

But what if the grocery store is more than a mile away. How about 10? And what if you don’t have a car. Maybe you can take a bus, if you live near a bus stop. Or maybe you can take a taxi, if you’re lucky enough to afford that luxury.

But likely, you pop into one of those ubiquitous corner markets, the kind stocked-up with canned sodas and bags of chips, and not so much on fresh fruits-n-veggies. And pretty soon, you’re popping in so often, because it’s cheap and easy, that the little convenience store down the road is your main grocery.

What happens to your diet? Nothing good…

“A corner store simply does not count as a grocery store,” explains Chip Boyles, vice president of administration for the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority. “And yet, here in the Baton Rouge area, many corner markets are serving as the main store for too many people. And we’ve got to change that.”

Today, Boyles is overseeing the new Healthy Corner Store Initiative, offering “make over” grants (up to $20,000 each) to four neighborhood stores in East Baton Rouge Parish. The goal is to help the markets redesign and refocus, to offer fresh produce alongside their normal pre-packaged fare.

The Healthy Corner Store Initiative is yet another exciting program developed by one of our Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant partners, Fresh Beginnings (awarded $1 million from the foundation last fall). Fresh Beginnings is a collaborative wellness program with East Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden’s Healthy City Initiative.

Below, check out our chat with Boyles about corner markets, the new initiative, and how offering apples alongside racks of Ramen Noodles just might make all the difference in the health and well being of some East Baton Rouge residents.

Q: Are full service grocery stores really that hard to come by in some Baton Rouge areas?

A: Yes, that’s true. In north and south Baton Rouge regions, there are as many as 103,000 residents living in food deserts (meaning there is no full service grocery store within a mile). And approximately 25,000 of those are children.

Q: And yet there are really that many more corner stores in the same regions?

A: There are over 70 convenience stores –70! In this very region where we see almost no grocery stores at all. There are simply almost no full service grocery stores serving these neighborhoods.

Q: And we’ve all been in these stores, where they mostly have snack type foods and not much more.

A: They have chips, beer, tobacco, that kind of thing. But they definitely don’t provide balance diet foods – no vegetables, fruits, low fat dairy, healthy meats… The things required for a nutritious meal!

Q: Okay, so let’s talk about the initiative a little more.

A: Healthy Corner Store Initiative, we will be awarding four grants, $20,000 each, to help existing convenience stores in food desert areas to start stocking healthy foods. We will help with whatever they need to make that happen – new refrigeration units, redesign shelving, marketing, new signage…

Q: But just because you put out fresh produce at these stores, what makes you think people will actually start picking the bananas over the bags of Doritos?

A: Because of the reaction we get from the community. They’ve told us they want this. Especially older families, retired people, the elderly, who find even going two miles to a store very difficult. They are very, very eager. Families want to cook this way. These are the foods they grew up on, so it’s a very positive response.

Q: What about the younger families? Will they even know how to prepare these fresh vegetables?

A: Actually, we’ll be giving exhibits, right at the stores, on how to prepare these foods. You know, it’s a different world now. Used to be, mom stayed home all day and could take a long time to cook a meal. Now, she’s coming home from work, maybe she’s a single parent, maybe she still has another shift to get to, and she needs a meal she can prepare in 30 minutes or less. So, we’ll have classes teaching how to do that. And the classes will generate more foot traffic into the store, giving that store an even bigger customer base.

Q: Why target these tiny stores instead of, say, taking that grant money and building a full service grocery store in a food desert area?

A: Because this is a quick and easy way to make a impact. We can go into an existing store and immediately start selling the right foods. And these four stores are only the beginning. We hope this will be part of a much bigger program, something we can replicate at more and more stores.  And it’s all part of our bigger program, thanks to the (BCBSLAF) grant. We’re creating mobile markets to visit different neighborhoods in need, we’re creating nutrition education with nearby schools to tell them about these programs, we’re holding community cooking classes. So we see this as so much more than just a corner store initiative. And this is just the very beginning.

The RDA will be accepting grant applications from existing corner markets now through April 15, 2013. For more details and guidelines, store owners should contact the Redevelopment Authority at 225-387-5606 or Grant winners must provide a 10-percent funding match.

And for more information on Baton Rouge’s food desert, check out this map, created by Pennington Biomedical’s Dr. Stephanie Broyles and Katy Drazba.

Catch this report on NBC 33 about the Healthy Corner Store Initiative.