Community initiative creates oasis of healthy options in Buffalo's food desert

Sep 17, 2018

Many of Buffalo’s East Side neighborhoods have long been considered food deserts, with little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. But an ongoing community initiative is working to change the corner store into an oasis of healthy options.


The shelves of Food Plus Market are densely stocked with a little bit of everything. But on some days, this corner store also offers something unexpected.

“We try to do some food tastings here. We get right in the doorway where folks can come in and see our display here,” said Sheila Bass, program coordinator for the Healthy Corner Store Initiative.

Bass and her team will often set up a table at the store to offer education on nutrition and how to best spend money on food.

“We start to point out some healthy choices,” Bass explained, pointing to one of the initiative’s ‘Good For You’ tags.

Throughout the store those tags stick out into the aisles, stand atop displays, and adorn freezer doors, guiding customers towards beans, fruits, rice, and fresh vegetables – just to name a few. But it wasn’t always this way.

“They did not expect a smaller store to have any vegetables or fruits,” said Food Plus owner Ahmed Alhoqobie. “Just the basic tomatoes, potatoes. That’s it. But that’s how the smaller stores do.

In 2015, the initiative approached Alhoqobie to help him offer a contrast to the often-processed, sugary, fatty options that customers were accustomed to seeing in the east side. Its part of what makes the neighborhood a food desert, where people – typically living with low income – have limited access to fresh, affordable foods within a mile of where they live.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

Alhoqobie was given a small cooler, free of charge, to place healthy options front and center in his store. He started off small, with a few fruits, and vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and tomatoes.

Now almost three years later, he’s been able to return the cooler for another store to use. With sales of fresh produce up 35 percent, Alhoqobie invested in two of his own larger coolers to expand the selection.

The combination of healthy options and education in the store is working to change a long-time perception in the East Side’s predominantly black and brown community that what you can walk to is what you should expect.

As neighborhoods like this one declined over the decades, owners of food stores who didn’t live in the community they sold to didn’t necessarily feel compelled to stick around.

So what’s left to feed residents when larger markets leave, taking their fresh produce with them?

Corner stores.

“These were considered candy stores, or lottery stores, or a store where you might get maybe a dozen eggs and a carton of milk,” said Rita Hubbard-Robinson, who focuses on community engagement for the Healthy Corner Store Initiative “But what’s happened over time – supermarkets have vanished and people have not really increased in their mobility. They don’t own cars. Particularly in the winter time, when you just really are more close to the home, they rely more on the corner store.”

Working in healthcare, Hubbard-Robinson has seen a history of chronic conditions in the neighborhoods that depend on corner stores. The zip code where Food Plus is, 14215, has some of the worst health outcomes in all of Erie County.

“So there’s got to be a correlation between lack of access to healthy food and the overall population health stats that we’re looking at,” Robinson said.

Success at places like Food Plus has led the Healthy Corner Store Initiative to grow to seven locations. Just two miles away in the heart of Canisius College’s urban neighborhood is their newest addition – Buffalo’s Golden Corner.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News

As you walk in to the store, a tall cooler sits near the door. It’s filled with water and healthy drinks for now and, right next to it, a red welcome mat marks the spot where more healthy options will soon be on display.

“Vegetables, apples, pears, whatever we need,” said Store Manager Christopher Khounthy as he imagined the spot’s future. “We’re going to try to push it.”

That future exists without the easy profit of alcohol and tobacco sales. Buffalo’s Golden Corner already got rid of those items as part of a choice to not only serve the neighborhood’s student demographic, but better take care of its children and families.

But while changing the products in a store can happen overnight, changing the community is a long-term effort – one that can’t spread too far just yet.

“Because we know if we just put one here and then scatter one two zip codes away, it’s not going to have the same kind of impact,” explained Hubbard-Robinson. “It might not be a quick turnaround, but at least we can have embedded in the community access in a real way that will over time have an impact – maybe even a next-generation impact.”

With the help of $118,000 in new grant funding from the United Way and General Mills, and efforts to gain more funding from the USDA and CDC, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative aims to add four more stores to the fold in 2019, and five more after that.

For now, they’ll help the seven that they have keep growing, building a dream for the corner store to become a healthy oasis in the food desert.