November 22, 2016 — Maurice Burrell, owner of Peach Pantry, a corner store in southwest Atlanta, has started to sell fresh fruits and vegetables in order to offer healthier options for customers in the neighborhood. (photo: BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL)
Photo: Branden Camp
Photo: Branden Camp

Colleges’ goal: Fresh food in low-income Atlanta areas

It is 9 a.m. a week before Thanksgiving and Maurice Burrell’s mop is flying.

The owner of Peach Pantry, a relatively new corner store on Katherwood Drive in southwest Atlanta near Sylvan Middle School, is getting ready for the day’s rush.

Otis Austin walks in and says hello.

He goes straight to the fresh food section of the store, a noted rarity in corner stores in poorer neighborhoods.

He studies the zucchini, peppers, squash and onions before he picks up a package of sausage to cook for breakfast. Like nearly everyone else in the neighborhood, he walks home.

Burrell, having made his way to the back of the store with his mop, remembers growing up in Alabama and how corner stores used to sell fresh items, before those communities became food deserts and those same stores converted to quick spots to pick up cigarettes, potato chips and fast food.

“We can do better than that,” Burrell said. “We are a black store in a black neighborhood. Why wouldn’t the corner store have collard greens?”

Burrell is part of an ambitious program spearheaded by the Morehouse School of Medicine Prevention Research Center and the Georgia State University School of Public Health. The goal is to persuade store owners in otherwise depressed neighborhoods in southwest and southeast Atlanta to start offering better, healthier food choices in the communities they serve.

“The vision of the program aligns with the vision I have for this store,” Burrell said. “Bringing some good, fresh produce to the neighborhood.”

Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative encourages more fresh produce, whole wheat bread and skim milk. Less candy, snacks and sodas.

“Lack of access to healthy food is linked to increased rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease,” said Tabia Akintobi, an associate dean at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “We want to ensure that we meet communities where they are through partnerships with corner stores and other local leaders. Our goal is to make sure that every member of this community has access to healthier food options to lead better lives.”

In Georgia, more than 30 percent of all adults are considered obese and 10 percent of Georgians over the age of 18 have some form of diabetes. In the 31 Atlanta census tracts that the program is covering — in mostly black communities — those numbers appear worse, Akintobi said.

Akintobi said the overall obesity rate among adults in Fulton County is 54 percent.

And while the median income in Fulton County is about $57,000 and $46,000 in the city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the figures drop considerably in the areas served by the program.

In the ZIP code where Peach Pantry is located, for example, the median income is $24,664 and the poverty level is 36 percent.

“Given the dramatic income inequality between north and south Fulton County and the disparate socio-economic conditions, the (obesity) rate is expected to be much higher in South Fulton County … where the prioritized (neighborhoods) are located,” Akintobi said. “We have to get to the root cause of the issue. We must not just do research, but we must do something to address the issues. We want to try to change the environment and eliminate the risk factors.”

And one of those risks is access to healthy food.

In 2015, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that nearly 2 million Georgia residents, including about 500,000 children, live in food deserts. The USDA has classified more than 35 food deserts — a low-income community located more than 1 mile from a source of fresh produce — inside the Perimeter. And experts argue there is a direct correlation between food deserts and the state’s high rates of obesity and chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and cancers.

From where Peach Pantry is on Katherwood Drive, the closest grocery store is 1.5 miles away. The next one is 2.4 miles — which, when you don’t have a car, seems a lot farther than that.

Fred Lovett has lived in the community for 27 years and generally walks everywhere. When he needs to go to the grocery store, he has to depend on his sister for a ride. If she is not around, he walks.

Peach Pantry was a welcome site for him when it opened in September.

“It is good for the neighborhood and kind of takes us back to how it was before,” Lovett said. “I come here every day to get food.”

As of Thanksgiving, the Morehouse medical school and the GSU School of Public Health had signed up 11 stores to participate in their program. The program does not subsidize the stores, but does provide technical assistance, support and signage.

A sign on Burrell’s soda case read: “Did you know it takes 65 minutes of dancing to work off a bottle of soda?”

Rodney Lyn, the associate dean for academic affairs at the GSU School of Public Health, said more than half of the stores they approached to participate rejected them.

“We had to go into stores and recruit. We had to explain the community need and make a business case that you can be profitable,” Lyn said. “We had some folks say, “If people wanted it, we would know.’ We would love to see the demand grow to the point where we can have some sort of co-op to allow owners to get products.”

Burrell understands and embraces the financial risk.

Fresh, specially ordered local breads and sugar-free muffins line his shelves. The baskets of apples, lemons and bananas are half-empty, which is a good sign.

He said he will monitor how well the fresh foods sell to determine how much to stock, although he vows never to abandon the concept. He is preparing a second container to hold fresh meats and is scouting out locations in the neighborhood to start a garden to sustain the store.

Burrell has finished mopping and points out a big, pretty bushel of broccoli.

“A woman came in yesterday and asked if we had broccoli. I didn’t have any, so she had to go someplace else,” Burrell said. “But I told her that if she came back today, I would have broccoli. I will always have broccoli.”

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