By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

We didn’t know, initially, if stashing a bunch of fruits and vegetables among the Dorito bags and cola cans would be much of a draw to regulars of a local corner store. After all, the pre-packaged, preservative-pumped, sugary goods are usually the life blood of these stores. It’s drawn the customer base for years — sometimes decades.

So weren’t we pleasantly surprised earlier this week when we popped by Capitol Grocery in East Baton Rouge’s Spanish Town to find a healthy crowd of people streaming in and out of the newly made-over store.

“This is going to make it a whole lot easier to eat healthy,” said Camilla Pugh, who lives just a block and a half away from Capitol. “So, yes, I’m really excited to hear they are now going to offer fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Fellow neighbor Sandy Robert concurred. After all, she mostly rides her bike to run errands. And since she lives just three blocks from Capitol, her grocery shopping just got a whole lot easier. She’s mostly excited by the new refrigerated produce stand, to be installed next week. Fresh Beginnings, Healthy Corner Store

“I hope they carry bananas,” she said. “That’s my favorite. I eat bananas every day.”

We’re pretty sure owners Jenna and Taylor Blanche will do their best to fulfill your request, Sandy. The Blanches took over ownership of the store with their brother MacKenzie Blanche in June (though they’ve managed the store since April 2013). But Capitol Grocery is nothing short of “an institution” in this community, we were told over and over by those milling about. Capitol, it turns out, first opened its doors in something like 1890. Over the years, the store, which also operates as a local deli, offering a small selection of sandwiches and burgers, has served nearly everyone in the streets surrounding this beloved neighborhood staple. A collection of tables sits outside, where folks can gather to eat, chat, forge community bonds. But most of what they had to offer in the way of food was what you’d see at more liquor and corner stores — chips, colas, sweets, etc.

So Capitol was a perfect candidate to participate in our Healthy Corner Store initiative, supported by Fresh Beginnings, a Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant-funded wellness initiative. Our partners with the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority also played a major role in spearheading the effort, which included makeover grants (roughly $16,000 each) to four East Baton Rouge corner stores. The stores could use the money to add things like produce coolers and stands, new lighting, new signage advertising more fruits and vegetables, weight scales. Capitol Grocery even used funds for new tables and chairs and new mini grocery carts.

“We added more than just equipment for fruits and vegetables because this is about more than just bringing in healthy produce,” said Susannah Bing, finance and economic development director for the RDA. “It’s about reconnecting with the community. And it’s about creating sustainability.”

To push that sustainability part along, each corner store grant awardee even had to attend training classes through Southern University’s Louisiana Small Business Development Center.

“We wanted to make sure that when the grant ends, the progress we’ve made here doesn’t end,” Bing said.

Capitol celebrated the day with cooking demonstrations, using veggies now sold at the store, and offered a healthy lunch special — a chicken and brussels sprout plate. A fuller healthy menu makeover is still in the works, Jenna Blanche said.

“We already make the best hamburger in the city,” she said. “But we want to offer more than just things like fried po boys and cheeseburgers. We want to offer a special menu using all the produce we sell in the store.”

She’s also hoping that their shoppers, most of whom are “everyday customers,” she says, will notice that next to the canned cheese dips, they also now offer items like fresh avocados.

“So maybe they’ll go home now and make their own dip instead,” she said.

Other East Baton Rouge Healthy Corner Store kick offs coming soon — hope to see ya there:

Kelly’s Meat Market (kick off was today, 10 am!)

Sewell’s Community Grocery (Aug. 19, 10 am)

Beachwood Meat Market (Aug. 26, 10 am)