Mandating Fresh Produce

Minnesota law kicks in even as Kentucky retailers struggles a similar program

LOUISVILLE, Ken. -- As Minnesota began requiring corner stores to stock more fresh produce this month, Kentucky retailers are having mixed results with a similar program, some throwing in the towel after the tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, bananas and oranges being stocked elicited few sales.

A Minnesota law that went into effect this month requires some convenience stores to stock at least five varieties of fresh produce, seven if they're in the metro area. The law targets the 525 stores statewide that are approved to accept food coupons from families relying on the Women, [image-nocss] Infants and Children's (WIC) program. Too many of those stores didn't have fresh, healthy food available, JoAnne Bergenkamp, a food expert at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, told the Star Tribune.

"In many low-income neighborhoods, there's a real dearth of neighborhood grocery stores. And most corner stores have a very limited selection of fresh fruits and vegetables," Bergenkamp said. "Some of them have virtually none."

The program formerly covered only cereals, fruit juice, peanut butter, tuna, carrots, milk, cheese, eggs, dried peas and infant cereal. Now, in addition to the fresh-produce benefit, it also will cover fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables; whole grain breads, tortillas, brown rice and oatmeal; jarred baby foods and soy beverages; tofu; and organic fruits and vegetables, the newspaper reports.

About 141,000 women, infants and children in Minnesota rely on the program. Each adult and child in the program gets coupons every month worth $6 to $10 to spend on fresh produce. The law doesn't set individual amounts for each fruit or vegetable, except to say that each store should have at least 24 pounds of fresh produce on hand; 30 pounds if it's in the metro area. The law does not set prices.

"The new WIC food choices will improve the health of Minnesota mothers and children and reduce a child's risk of chronic disease by supporting healthy eating early in life," Dr. Sanne Magnan, Minnesota's Commissioner of Health, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, in the California neighborhood of Louisville, Ky., Shorty's food mart began the year offering an alternative to the cigarettes, candy, beer and chips that dominate most corner stores in the areafresh fruit and vegetables.

City and local YMCA officials chose Shorty's as part of a pilot project to reseed Louisville's "urban food deserts"supplying healthy foods in poor areas where residents, many of whom don't have cars, struggle to reach the few supermarkets in the area, according to a report in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Although residents thanked owner Nour Kurdi for the tomatoes, cabbage, greens, cucumbers, bananas and oranges he stocked on his shelves, it didn't translate into sufficient sales, Kurdi told the newspaper, and he recently dropped out of the "Healthy in a Hurry" corner-store project.

"They seemed glad to have it, but they didn't actually purchase it," said Kurdi. The store's withdrawal from the effort has disappointed California neighborhood leaders and highlighted the difficulties of changing consumers' attitudes and business practices in such areas.

Even so, Louisville health officials say they won't abandon the healthy corner-store initiative, saying they are seeing more promising results at the second of two stores that shared a $20,000 grant for new coolers, advertising and produce.

Smoketown Dollar Plus, next to the Sheppard Square public-housing complex, is selling roughly $400 of produce a month, according to the newspaper report.

And a preliminary health-department survey showed that between January and April, most respondents in that area said they were purchasing more fruits and vegetables, while those saying they "hardly ever" did so dropped from 43% to 12%.

"I'm eating healthier now, and so are my kids, because it was hard to go all the way to Kroger without a car," said resident Leisha Neal, who lives near Sheppard Square with her two children. "Other stores just didn't have that stuff."

Louisville officials still hope to create a model they can spread to many of the roughly 70 corner and convenience stores in western and central Louisville, and they say they'll consider a third pilot location in the California neighborhood.