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Local food desert to get fresh produce

The USDA recently identified South Oak Park as a “food desert” – a produce-deficient area – but a local convenience store and community development nonprofit have joined forces in an attempt to address the problem.

Starting on May 26, Sam’s Market, at 23rd Avenue and 42nd Street in Oak Park, will offer fresh fruits and vegetables, sourced primarily from local small and midsize growers. The shop will also sport signs inside and outside that promote eating well and staying active, as well as “shelf talkers” – small signs identifying the healthiest option on a shelf of similar products.

The Alchemist Community Development Corporation approached store owner Parminder Grewal early this year. According to Alchemist Executive Director Davida Douglas, the store was an ideal fit for their Healthy Corner Store Makeover project.

“Parminder’s store is larger than most convenience stores, which allows us more opportunities to add healthy items to the existing stock,” Douglas said. “He also regularly has more than one person staffing the store at a time, which is helpful in order to be able to do the regular maintenance and merchandising of perishable fresh produce.”

Coolers like this, found at Sam’s, are ideal for storing fresh produce

Grewal was not surprised to hear that his shop’s neighborhood was a food desert, saying the lack of nearby convenient options makes it difficult to maintain a healthy diet.

“There are no markets in this neighborhood,” Grewal said. ”There is one liquor store and one convenience store. There is no food or anything available in this area – either they have to go to Fruitridge or Martin Luther King, which is more than one mile away.”

Douglas speculated that, based on observation, focus groups and surveys, most residents make, on average, monthly trips to out-of-the-way full service grocery stores and use nearby convenience stores to fill in the gaps of what runs out or is forgotten in that monthly trip.

“There tends to be a higher reliance on cheap, processed foods and boxed meals,” she said.

Douglas said that, over time, Grewal’s selection would grow to include more nutritious versions of packaged foods he already carries, including products with whole grains, frozen produce, and snacks lower in sodium and free of trans-fats.

“We also provided energy-saving night time covers for the open front cooler in order to conserve electricity, and ultimately reduce the store’s electricity bill,” she added.

This year, Sam’s Market will also host the Alchemist’s Urban Farm Stand every Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. through September. The stands offer locally-grown fresh produce at affordable prices and accept CalFresh food stamps to ensure that low-income families don’t miss out.

According to “Hunger Hits Home,” a 2012 study on regional food access, Sacramento County is home to roughly 220,000 food-insecure residents, most of whom reside in low-income neighborhoods such as South Oak Park.

Grewal is hopeful that his store’s makeover will bring residents one step closer to eating well on a regular basis.

“I wanted to get fresh and healthy food available in the neighborhood,” he said. “They can go to the farmers’ market, but here it will be available every day.”

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