Healthier food options coming to last holdout

January 23, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Some of the photos are fresh from the school photographer, some have faded over time -- but not in Kyung Kim's memory.

"This one, she's got two kids now," the shopkeeper said fondly, pointing to one pigtailed little girl and then another, "and this one, she's got three."

The photos fill one wall of Sun Grocery and have rounded the corner and started spilling onto the adjacent one. School pictures, graduation pictures, wedding pictures and baby pictures track the lives of the store's customers, and they're the first sign that this isn't your typical small, inner-city store where the customer-shopkeeper relationship is transacted between a thick wall of Plexiglas and mistrust.

The second sign, or rather, signs, are the posters and cards that encourage customers at the deli counter to "hold the mayo -- your heart will thank you" or point them to the cereals that are "lower in sugar."

Kyung Kim and her husband, Soon, who have owned and run Sun Grocery on East Monument Street for almost 27 years, are part of a unique effort that seeks to bring healthier foods to the last holdout -- the inner-city convenience store, that bastion of nutritionally bad stuff such as trans-fat-laden snack cakes, salty chips, sugary sodas and, of course, the evil if irresistible pork rinds.

Long after the Whole Foods set has grown accustomed to having choices that range from the healthy to the healthier -- nine-grain or 12-grain bread, low-fat or no-fat-at-all cream cheese? -- inner-city residents, especially those without transportation, often have to make do with the limited and often unhealthy options offered by the small convenience stores and fast food outlets that dominate their neighborhoods. As a result, they have much higher rates of obesity -- and, as a consequence, often higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease as well.

"It's kind of ridiculous to say to people you should eat X, Y and Z," said Joel Gittelsohn, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, "if X, Y and Z isn't available."

Gittelsohn, a medical anthropologist, several years ago launched the "Baltimore Healthy Stores" program that has encouraged inner-city stores like the Kims' grocery to stock healthier items -- whole-wheat bread, whole-grain cereals, lower-fat milk, baked rather than fried chips and cooking sprays.

He previously ran similar programs in other parts of the world, including the Marshall Islands and an Apache reservation in Arizona, where residents have similarly high rates of diet-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease as those who live in low-income, urban neighborhoods, and found that making healthier options available helped consumers improve their diets. Now he and other researchers are seeing if they can have the same impact closer to home.

"When we first talked to people in the community and the store owners, the store owners would say, `We'd love to stock healthy foods, but no one wants it,'" Gittelsohn said. "The community would say, `We'd like to have healthier foods, but no one stocks it, or it's too expensive.'"

He credits one of his doctoral students, Hee-Jung Song, who is from South Korea, with recruiting stores owned by Korean-Americans into the program, and getting the owners to allow cooking demonstrations and other promotions. In addition to seven Korean-owned stores, two Stop Shop & Save groceries also joined the program.

"My customers, they're used to picking up greasy food and sugar and soda, and I worry," Soon Kim says with a frown. "I think my customers need to cut down on sugar. They need more vegetables."

He's selling more lower-fat milk now, and some customers have switched from soda to bottled water. Still, he tries not to preach -- customers still come in for cigarettes or to buy their children potato chips and sugary drinks or add several heaping tablespoons of sugar to their coffee, and they pay up and leave without a health scolding from Kim.

Song says the stores that agreed to join the program are ones where the owners had a close relationship with their customers, and watching out for their health was an outgrowth of that. She is analyzing data to see what effect the program has had on the stores' customers and their buying and eating habits, comparing them with a control group of similar consumers whose neighborhood stores are not a part of the program.

Some of those control stores, though, are going to join the program this spring.

"I'm in the city a long time, these are my neighbors, my customers, my friends," said Grace Lyo, whose store on Mount Street in West Baltimore, which she is in the process of renaming Blooming Sun, is joining the program.

Indeed, just about everyone who stopped in on a recent afternoon seemed on friendly terms, calling her "Gracie," or "Sweetie." A girl came in looking for hair ornaments to match a pink-striped top; a boy buying his version of comfort food -- some Gummi bear-like candies -- told her he'd been sick all morning; a cook on his way to work stopped in for instant noodles, waiting as Lyo boiled a pot of water for him.

The program has gotten her thinking about her role in her customers' health.

"I think it's a habit -- start eating sweet stuff when they were little babies, always eat sweet stuff," she said. "I see a cute baby, I give them candy. Now I think, `Oh, I'm sorry I did that.'"

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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