Organizations make an effort to provide healthy food options in South Jersey

Vineland’s Downtown Deli is usually the spot for a lunchtime sandwich or calorie-filled snacks. Though on this day, customers are stocking up on produce.

“The corner store initiative looked at getting into the places where a lot of people do their grocery shopping and giving them healthier options along with an educational piece,” said Vineland Health Department health educator AJ Dunkle.

The lack of access to healthy, affordable food is a problem for about 1.5 million New Jerseyans, according to the USDA. That includes 27 percent of low-income Cumberland County residents. The Healthy Corner Store initiative brings fresh fruits and veggies to communities underserved by supermarkets through a collaboration between The Food Trust and the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids.

“A lot of people like to say food deserts, but we do have a lot of options around here so I like to say a food swamp. It’s a lot of options that are unhealthy,” said Dunkle.

“The grocery stores and the supermarkets that are opening up throughout all of New Jersey for that matter are mostly in suburban areas and that’s great. But what we’re talking about are urban areas typically, or rural areas,” said Robert Goodman, American Heart Association board member.

An Associated Press study showed only 3 out of 40 supermarkets that opened in the state between 2011 and 2015 were located in high-need areas. The Healthy Corner Store initiative offers food vouchers, recipes and cooking classes. The Health Department frequently holds free health screenings.

“I don’t look at the fruits and vegetables when I come here. I go to get the more unhealthy food, so it’s definitely an eye-opener,” said Vineland resident Yolanda Hill.

“When we looked at bringing fruits and veggies in here, we tried to tailor them to the front of the store where a lot of the candy bars are, where a lot of chips and sodas,” Dunkle said. “One of our biggest things was looking at our safe schools route and looking at the corner stores the kids are hitting after school.”

Recently, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin announced that programs like this will be a priority. Right now there’s 150 corner store initiatives in cities across the state — about 25 around Vineland alone. With more awareness, they hope that number will grow.

But expansion will be tough without public funding. The Assembly passed the Healthy Small Food Retailer Act in March, but it still hasn’t made it out of committee on the Senate side.

“We’ve been working with all grants and we’re doing the same things that these bills propose, with us running out of money and looking for money to keep this great program going. It would be great if we could get wither state or federal funding for this and really help the effort that we’ve been trying to do for the last eight years,” Dunkle said.

Improving these stores might just be the best pathway to improving public health.