For Just Harvest’s Fresh Corners pilot project, voting season is starting to heat up.
“Bananas!!!” “Apples!” “Tomatoes!” “Grapes!”
On a recent sunny afternoon in McKees Rocks, all around the room at the Myers Ridge Community Center, kids shouted out their favorite fruits and veggies. With the names of each prospective candidate, the hands of both adults and children shot up to vote. The owner of the Rocks Express corner store, Bashir Akhter, looked both surprised and impressed.
Parents, grandparents, children, and other McKees Rocks neighbors had been by invited by Just Harvest to the focus group to meet the store owner to share their hopes for what kinds of fresh, nutritious foods they hoped that he would sell at the store. Working with Just Harvest to coordinate all the necessary steps, Mr. Akhter had joined the Fresh Corners network, the group of corner stores across Allegheny County that had signed agreements to sell at least five varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables in their food desert neighborhoods.
But Mr. Akhter had expressed some nervousness – he had tried this twice before. Would residents in this neighborhood really buy fresh produce? He wondered especially about all the kids and teens who so often came to his store for snacks.
Grandmother Anna Robinson told him, “I see my grandkids run around the corner for those chips. I want to see them run out with an apple. I know my kids like apples and bananas. It’ll give the children a choice!”
At the focus group, the kids and teens had certainly voted for fruits and veggies with raised hands, with voices – and with their feet and bellies as well. Before the focus group had started, they’d stormed the snack table for blueberries, cherry tomatoes, grapes, baby carrots. Most of the serving bowls were now almost empty and only a few stray grape stems remained on a few of the kids’ plates.
The adults had talked about the favorite recipes that sometimes did not get made for the kids, and for themselves, because they just didn’t have access to the most common of fresh fruits and vegetables. “Lots of us don’t have cars in this neighborhood,” said the grandmother, “I’ll see I’m just short of a green pepper, or an onion for what I want to make. But it’s just too much to pay a jitney $6 to get to the grocery store. It would really help to be able to just walk over and pick one up.”
“Yes, that’s right, no buses come up here,” Madeline Hines told us, “and when it snows it’s real hard to get up off of this hill for us older folks. But if we can’t afford the vegetables, if the price is too high, most times my recipe still would not get made. And most younger people here in this neighborhood work, but they are not making enough to pay too much. Not even if it’s just right next door. They will most always have to wait until when the next paycheck comes, and then they can do most of their shopping all at once down in town at a bigger grocery store where the produce is affordable.”
Mr. Akhter had heard the same message earlier in the day, at another focus group organized for residents near his other location, the “In and Out Corner Store” on Helen Street in the McKees Rocks Bottoms. The overall consensus from both focus groups had been: “Yes, we want and will buy the produce, but the price must be right, and the quality must be high.”
But both focus groups had also talked about the importance of the community’s role in helping to change local food cultures by teaching kids and their parents about why fresh produce is good for them – their bodies and their brains – and reinforcing their good choices on a day-to-day basis.
Such focus groups organized by the Fresh Corners coordinators across Allegheny County food deserts have allowed store owners and residents to meet each other and share their concerns. Today, the residents had also learned a few of the practical challenges that Mr. Akhter faced.
For most corner store owners, without the deep corporate pockets to buy in bulk from distributors for lower cost, they themselves often pay top dollar for high quality produce and it’s very difficult for them to turn any profit at all without a significant markup. Also, if they do buy in bulk, perishables bought and sold at lower cost will often go bad, a near-total loss without a steady stream of customers they can count on to buy the produce.
Store owners like Mr. Akhter have decided to take the risk because of the extra technical support, marketing, and networking that the Fresh Corners program provides. Fresh Corners project coordinators have done extensive research to find produce distribution partners offering quality low-cost products, equipment vendors, and meaningful types of advertising and marketing that have proved successful in similar corner store initiatives around the country.
These corner store pioneers were reassured to know that experienced corner store owner Dora Walmsley will provide consulting on store layout, produce display, and the use of a point of sales system to analyze the data on inventory selection, sales, and the relative success of various marketing strategies. And perhaps store owners had also been willing to take the plunge because so many community organizations, leaders, and focus group participants had declared themselves ready and willing to help build that so-vital customer base.
All across four food desert communities, Just Harvest has been working to launch the Fresh Corners pilot project as part of the collaborative Live Well Allegheny Campaign, coordinating efforts with many partners such as the Allegheny County Health Department, Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, and the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council. All across Larimer, Penn Hills, Braddock, and McKees Rocks, churches and community centers have offered to help organize, market, and host the nutrition education and cooking classes that they emphasize are critical to teaching people how to value and use the fresh produce. Multiple stakeholder meetings and focus groups have generated many suggestions of local newsletters, daycares, schools, churches, colleges, and community groups that could help spread news of the Fresh Corners launch through bulletins, flyers, postcards, email, Facebook, and twitter – and most importantly, word of mouth.
Certainly, such grassroots networking, promotion and commitment to community health helped lay the groundwork for the enthusiastic focus group participation exemplified by both the Helen Street and the Myers Ridge neighborhoods in McKees Rocks. By the end of both lively, highly informative conversations, adults and teens volunteered to join Just Harvest’s community organizer to pass out flyers and door hangers about the produce that would soon be available. Everyone agreed to personally invite their neighbors or coworkers to come to the store, to cooking classes, and taste testings.
Some of the kids wanted to join the flyering teams, especially for a community celebration later in the spring that will spotlight Mr. Akhter’s commitment to community health. Sue Stiffler, director of the Focus on Renewal Head Start program that had hosted the focus group on Helen Street, offered to lead a team of kids to draw fruits and veggies in chalk on the sidewalks, with arrows that would point the way to Mr. Akhter’s store. In the Myer’s Ridge focus group, one of the kids enthusiastically jumped at that idea for her own neighborhood. And Leah Marmo, Community Builders resident services coordinator for the Myers Ridge housing community, volunteered to help recruit and lead a team of kids to follow that lead.
The day of questions, answers, and good willed suggestions made very clear that McKees Rocks residents of all ages were ready to vote together, think together, and work together for the health of their community.