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Coalition tackling Buffalo food deserts – one corner store at a time

Lauren Hardy lives on Buffalo's East Side, but when possible she does her grocery shopping in Amherst.

She said she doesn't have much of a choice.

"The inner city doesn't have nearly enough grocery stores for us," she said. "I know if I go to Amherst, I can hit every grocery store I need and get just what I'm looking for."

For some Buffalo residents, a shortage of healthy food choices at neighborhood stores is a problem. The issue is so prevalent it has been given a name: food deserts.

That's why the John R. Oishei Foundation’s Mobile Safety-Net Team created a coalition in Buffalo to place healthy food options in corner stores. Since 2016, the group has partnered with six different corner stores on the East Side.

"It's a burden to have to go to Wegmans or Tops that are far away," said Annie Todd, community impact coordinator of the Mobile Safety-Net Team.

The grant-funded program, Healthy Corner Store Initiative, recently used a $118,000 from the United Way and General Mills to hire a program coordinator, Sheila Bass.

As the program gains traction, coordinators are in search of investors. Todd says that the program has had to turn away some corner stores for the sake of maintaining the "one-on-one" help her coalition provides. Recently, the organization applied for a USDA grant for $500,000 in hopes of funding a revamp of staff and operations.

"This is just one effort to create access to a healthier lifestyle in neighborhoods," said Rita Hubbard-Robinson, CEO and founder of NeuWater Associates, an organization focused on improving health in Buffalo neighborhoods.

Trade Fair Food Market owner Adel Munassar, left, discusses healthy food options in front of one of his "Fresh Fast Food" refrigerated cases with Sheila Bass, at his store on East Delavan Avenue. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Jocelyn Winston started making healthy eating decisions 12 years ago for two reasons: She watched one of her parents die from diabetes complications. And an accident damaged her adrenal gland, meaning there were certain foods she could not eat.

"I wanna shop where I live, in my neighborhood," said Winston, who said she feels more comfortable on her daily strolls to the corner store than driving to a grocery store.

Todd, the community impact coordinator, says the work she and her coworkers do extends beyond corner stores.

"A lot of people in these neighborhoods feel as though the store owners are only here to take advantage of them," she said, "but it makes them feel good to see that some store owners actually want to help the community."

Todd attributed the disconnect between store owners and customers mostly to language and culture barriers.

The coalition works with the Arab-American Business and Professional Association to get connected with corner store owners on the East Side. Todd then offers an incentive to the store owners to get them to agree to integrate healthy foods in their stores.

The Population Health Collaborative of Western New York donates money for storage coolers that are given to each participating store. Nutritionists from the program also educate store owners on how to properly store and preserve healthy foods.

Ahmed Alhoqobie, owner of Food Plus Market, said he agreed to turn his store into a healthy corner store because he knew it would be good for the neighborhood.

"We want to be a part of the solution," he said.

Kayla Kio, a nutritionist for the coalition, gives frequent healthy corner store tours and demonstrations throughout the month.

Hubbard-Robinson, of NeuWater Associates, says the coalition works to provide support for participants who seek healthier food options in their corner stores.

"These are not just healthy corner stores," said Robinson, "they're corner stores of the future."

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