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Healthy Corner

A local nonprofit pushes for Hartford's small grocery stores to offer more than chips and Lotto tickets

Dan D'Ambrosio

March 02, 2010

Anamil, Bella Vista, Brito, Carlos, Ciales, El Coqui, Cruz's, Hot Corner, Los Primos, Romny, Rumaldo's, Urelio. These are the names of some of the 120 or so corner markets that Hartford residents associate with groceries. Not Stop & Shop or Whole Foods.

Martha Page, the new executive director of Hartford Food System, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of the food supply in Hartford, points out that more than 30 percent of Hartford residents don't have cars. And even if they did, the only Stop & Shop in town, at 150 New Park Ave., is practically in West Hartford.

Hartford's corner markets are small, averaging about 650 square feet, and unfortunately many are like the one on New Britain Avenue I popped into last week, where immediately inside the front door, like a glittering shrine, is a wall of chips in bright bags. There are Red Hot Flavored, Onion Garlic, and Salt & Vinegar chips; Ridgies, Dipsy Doodles, Nacho Twisters, and Cheez Doodles; and of course, Cheddar Fries. Near the register are a few bananas, onions, apples.

It's markets like this one that have been targeted by Hartford Food System to upgrade the city's corner markets into healthier options for residents.

"At the time Hartford Food System began this corner store strategy [in 2006] you could look around the country and see cities exploring similar [options]," says Page. "This notion has exploded in a short period of time to the point you have a healthy corner store listserv with tons of e-mails all the time."

In October 2008, Hartford Food System published a map of the 40 corner markets in Hartford taking part in its Healthy Food Retailer Initiative, although it must be said that not all of those markets are oases of nutrition. And some have since closed. But all have at least agreed that stocking more healthy food is a good goal.

Recently, Page found allies in Katie Martin, a researcher at the University of Connecticut's Center for Public Health and Health Policy in East Hartford, and the Donaghue Foundation, a local nonprofit that focuses on research with a practical benefit for public health. Funded by Donaghue, Martin launched a study last year to compare 30 markets participating in the Healthy Food Initiative with 30 markets in a control group.

"It's easy to say the small markets are a negative in the community, the idea is they sell Lotto tickets and cigarettes and beer, chips and soda," says Martin. "But on the other hand they really could be a gem in the community."

One such gem, says Martin, is Glorimar Grocery at 158 Hillside Ave. The first thing you see when you walk in Glorimar is not chips, but fresh fruits and vegetables, including bananas, plantains, mangos, yams, yucca, oranges, avocados, tomatoes, green peppers, lettuce, and apples.

Glorimar, measuring just 750 square feet, also has a small butcher shop in the back, and its shelves are packed with the basics for putting meals on the table. Martin credits new owner Dennis Alvarez.

"When I said I worked at UConn he was very hip on the fact that we need to help people eat healthier," says Martin. "He just understands."

Still Martin says the study over the past year has shown that while stores participating in the Healthy Food Initiative have made improvements they haven't been significantly greater than those made by the control group.

"I find people tend to point the finger," says Martin. "If we talk to store owners they say, 'I'm happy to try something but there just isn't customer demand.' If we talk to customers they'll often say a store just doesn't have what they want to buy."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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