Southside residents soon will be able to purchase fresh produce at discounted prices at area convenience stores as part of a pilot program aimed at increasing healthy food access in areas where it is difficult to obtain.
Partners with the Healthy Corner Store Initiative announced last week that more than five corner stores in District 3, which encompasses the majority of the city’s South and Southeast sides, would begin stocking fresh fruits and vegetables so residents living in designated “food deserts” – areas where there is no grocery store within a mile radius – have the opportunity to make healthier choices.
“We wanted to find a way to alleviate the stress of not being able to find healthy foods,” said Anil Mangla, assistant professor and director of public health and research at the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine, located in District 3 at Brooks City Base. “Research shows that if [stores] can provide fresh fruit and vegetables at lower cost, people are going to buy it. This will change their diet, and [then we will look into whether this will] change someone’s diabetes status.”
The osteopathic medical school opened on the South Side in 2017 to serve an area of San Antonio where the rates of chronic diseases like diabetes and kidney disease are far higher than rates in the rest of the county and state, Mangla said. Bexar County residents south of Hildebrand Avenue have a life expectancy 15 percent to 20 percent lower than those who live north of that line.
First proposed by the Food Policy Council of San Antonio (FPCSA) – a nonprofit dedicated to addressing unhealthy food systems – the Healthy Corner Store Initiative is made possible by $50,000 in funding from District 3 to the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine, which will distribute produce vouchers to families in the district and work with the store to track how much is being purchased.
Stores will sell produce to consumers at half price, and the osteopathic medical school will use grant funding to reimburse the business to cover the total purchase cost. “We have put the majority of the grant funding into the community to make sure that store owners don’t lose any sales, but instead gain sales with this project,” Mangla said.
A $25,000 donation to FPCSA by privately owned frozen food distributor Happi Foodi will go toward purchasing refrigerators for stores willing to expand fresh food offerings.
As of 2018, more than 2.6 million Texans resided in areas where there was limited access to healthy food in 2018, according to the Limited Supermarket Access Analysis, a report measuring access to healthy food by determining which areas are well-served by supermarkets and which have limited access.
The University of Texas at San Antonio, assessing the link between food-related hardships and obesity, published a study in January that found people living in food deserts are at greater risk for obesity.
“The relationships between nutrition and obesity can be complex, and it cannot be boiled down to overeating,” said Alexander Testa, a public policy professor at UTSA and co-author of the study. “People don’t have enough to eat, they don’t have access to good nutrition, so they could be susceptible to obesity.”
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows several neighborhoods in District 3 have no healthy food options within areas with more than 7,000 residents, including neighborhoods close to Mission Espada Park and the Hot Wells Conservancy.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) told the Rivard Report that residents and businesses make consistent requests for a grocery store in the area, and while H-E-B recently bought property in the district, there is no formal timeline for a store to be built.
“In the meantime, we have to address the need for fresh fruits and vegetables in the community,” Viagran said.
And addressing the need hasn’t been easy.
For the past two years, FPCSA has been working to get local wholesale produce distributors to agree to reduce the minimum order requirements for fresh fruits and vegetables so that convenience stores in District 3 can afford to stock these products, said organization President Mitch Hagney. River City Produce agreed to reduce the purchase amount from a minimum of $250 to $50 for corner stores participating in the program.
The nonprofit also has been educating local business owners on fresh food safety, such as shelf life and how to properly store products “so that companies that haven’t sold produce lose less product and don’t get anyone sick,” Hagney said.
The San Antonio Food Bank also will partner with the initiative to provide cooking demonstrations in the stores to help customers learn how to incorporate healthy foods into their favorite recipes.
“We are working together to identify needs to help turn some of the health issues affecting people in this area,” Viagran said. “This has been an important issue for years now, and as our community continues to grow south … we need a grocery store.”
Yadira Silva, a District 3 resident on the far South Side near Texas Highway 16 and Loop 410, said a commute to the store, which includes a 10-minute walk to the nearest bus stop, can take several hours for someone without a vehicle.
“I have been living in this [area] for a long time. There used to be nothing out here. They build things, but it has been slow,” Silva said.