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Corner store initiative aims to break York City eating habits

Jana Benscoter
York Dispatch
  • York Fresh Food Farms, 150 Willis Road is partnering with both public and private entities to improve nutritional lifestyles in neighborhoods, where residents don't have many healthy food options.
  • "The average citizen doesn't shop in Central Market," Manns said. "The majority of vendors don't offer SNAP, WIC, DBT stuff anyway. I'm serving the underserved here."

Standing in a freezer aisle at Pak's Food Market, 22-year-old Katerine Aviles was searching for a frozen meal.

She said on Tuesday, Aug. 8, that unless she really needs produce — like a tomato — she's not interested in buying it. 

Living in York City and being within five minutes walking distance of the corner store, Aviles is one of the residents York Fresh Food Farms and the City of York Bureau of Health want to educate. But those involved in the Healthy Corner Store Initiative say it's too soon to tell if it's going to be popular. 

Pak's, Green Food Market and Lee's Food Market were part of the August program. The bureau of health stocked the stores with the nonprofit micro farm's urban-grown fresh produce, and then for two weeks the stores promoted buying vegetables and eating healthily to their customers. 

Paige Nenstiel, community health specialist at the York City Bureau of Health, left, and Erick Negron, a farm helper with York Fresh Food Farms, place a sign at the corner of E. Princess St. and S. Sherman St. where York Fresh Food Farms set up a produce stand at Pak's Food Market, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017. John A. Pavoncello photo

Eating habits: York City corner stores refrigerate and freeze inventory, from sodas and energy drinks to television dinners, frozen pastas and ice cream. But the hope is to change a generational mindset of purchasing unhealthy food over fresh food. 

"You won't find vegetables there," York Fresh Food Farms manager Bruce Manns said. "Major vegetable distributors won't go to corner stores. That footprint is too small for them to deliver to. It isn't big enough for them." 

Manns, 63, of Brogue, who tested the kinds of vegetables York City residents like to eat, explained "there isn't enough of a demand for produce." 

"It's two to three generations deep who have been removed from fresh vegetables," he said. "You can't make people eat anything. But we can reintroduce it to them."

After testing what kind of produce York City residents like, he discovered favorite eats are broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and a variety of peppers. Manns said he tested selling a variety of produce at different York City locations for several years. 

Erick Negron, farm helper with York Fresh Food Farm, helps set up a produce stand at Pak's Food Market, 750 E. Princess St., Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017 as part of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. John A. Pavoncello photo

Benny Wang, owner of Pak's, said it's too soon to say if it's working. Most of his low-income customers use WIC cards — electronic debit cards from the  Women, Infant and Children program — to pay for their purchases. 

"Maybe it'll last," Wang said. "It's getting better. From the beginning, we left it there, and nobody bought it. Three months later, if people aren't picking at it, it won't last." 

Strategic vision: The retail component, Manns continued, is one of several ideas that are going to be fleshed out. 

"The important thing is we need a cash flow in, in order to create sustainability," Manns said. 

Not only is Manns working on his farm at Willis Street, he also is tilling land on Roosevelt Avenue. Once he consistently yields seasonal yearly crops, he hopes to raise additional money to purchase a refrigerated mobile produce truck, which will be driven into specific York City neighborhoods. 

Metta Barbour, left, of York , Paige Nenstiel, community health specialist, and Erick Negron, farm helper at York Fresh Food Farm, set up a produce stand at Pak's Food Market, 750 E. Princess St., Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017 as part of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. John A. Pavoncello photo

Spreading a message: Metta Barbour, of Red Lion, treasurer of York Fresh Food Farms, said they are slowly getting out the message of healthy food choices.

Toward the end of August, Barbour explained, the nonprofit will be setting up pop-up markets, otherwise known as farmers stands, at various locations in York City neighborhoods.

To keep the momentum going, Manns said, the nonprofit has been awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation grant to fund building a 25-foot-by-100-foot gable-styled high tunnel, a greenhouse, at the Willis location.

He said it's their hope to have year-round vegetables, with an overall goal to effectively decrease obesity and positively impact poverty. 

Manns estimated the group spends in the mid-$30,000 range to operate the microfarm at Willis. In addition to Willis, the Roosevelt location is growing, too, he said. 

"We're totally community supported," Barbour said. "As a nonprofit, we are always hoping people will support us by volunteering and also donating." 

Manns said it "makes his heart sing" to cultivate urban farms. 

"We have to raise funds," he said. "You choose your footprint, do it intensely and do it intentionally. You pick your corner of the world and do it well."