RJ’s Mini Mart lies on the corner of East Fourth and Polk streets. Behind four gas pumps, it serves as the station’s base — a place people can pay for their fuel and stock up on tobacco, snacks and groceries.
Nestled between the Doritos chips and the Tostito’s salsa lay a bed of apples. They seem out of place, the shine of their red skin glinting off the fluorescent lights in the ceiling. These apples, along with boxes of flavored oatmeal, are a new addition to the mini mart, and a result of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative.
Working in collaboration with the Food Trust and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the initiative hopes to bring healthier food into local stores where many south Bethlehem residents shop.
The initiative provides a $100 incentive check for local bodegas to sell food that will benefit the community, and stop people from merely buying the cheapest foods with abandon to health risks.
“Cheap food is generally not as nutritious,” said Fiona Byrne, the food pantry director at New Bethany Ministries, “and low income families can only afford inexpensive food. Healthier foods and fresh produce will be secondary to larger quantities and dollar amount.”
Basing a diet solely on canned or packaged foods can lead to health problems or amplify an existing one, said Sherri Penchishen, the director of Chronic Disease Programs at the Bethlehem Bureau of Health. Diabetes and obesity are the most prominent chronic diseases in the area, as reported by the bureau.
“They are found across all income and education levels, but it’s harder for those with low income to control their diabetes and decrease their obesity status because they don’t have access to fruits and vegetables,” Penchishen said.
In fact, according to a study done by Judith Lasker at Lehigh, less than half of south Bethlehem residents are satisfied by their household consumption of fruits and vegetables. And 27 percent of residents were very dissatisfied in the same regard.
Especially when people don’t have access to a valid form of transportation, families can come to rely wholly on these corner stores for their sustenance.
Prior to partnering with the initiative, bodegas like RJ’s Mini Mart, Nieves Grocery and La Favorita only stocked snack foods, canned foods and sodas.
The initiative attempts to sneak healthier options, steadily but subtly, into the selection of foods a local store already offers. The switch can range from replacing regular Cheetos with baked Cheetos to introducing a new food entirely, like blueberries or peaches.
Though the initiative tries to encourage stores to make these changes, something vital is still missing: getting customers to actually purchase them.
Rashid Jamshed, RJ of RJ’s Mini Mart, said that a lot of the time the healthy food they stock doesn’t sell.
“People who come in here aren’t exactly health conscious,” Jamshed said.
In the last shipment, only about half the apples were sold by the time they went bad. Jamshed had difficulty remembering what other products had been introduced because he hadn’t noticed much of a purchasing change in his customers.
Much of it comes down to the fact that regardless of whether the food is provided, healthier foods will always be more expensive than unhealthy ones. And cheaper, canned foods will always be easier to cook than fresh ones.
People working multiple jobs at minimum wage, like south Bethlehem residents, have less time to cook healthier dinners. It’s much easier to pop open a can of Chef Boyardee than to follow recipe books and instructions.
It’s an issue not only with cheap buying at local bodegas, but in food pantries as well.
“Say we give someone green beans,” Elena Martin, ’15, said, who works with local food pantries. “If you don’t know how to cook them that’s a major problem. It’s wasteful and it’s discouraging.”