KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Shayan’s EZ Shop stocks the typical convenience store fare of chips, soft drinks, and alcohol.
But on Saturday, customers could sample something healthier: skillet-fried corn prepared by Teri Tillman, a nutrition program associate with the University of Missouri Extension.
“My grandkids will love this,” said customer Dainelle Law. “This is good.”
Surrounded by bags of cheese balls and pork rinds and using 30-packs of beer as her cooking bench, Tillman pointed out that shoppers could purchase most of the ingredients for the recipe at Shayan’s, which is at 85th Street and The Paseo.
Her cooking demonstration was part of the kick-off of Healthy Corner Stores, an initiative that includes the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) and the health departments in Kansas City, Mo., Independence, Mo., and Jackson County.
The University of Kansas Medical Center also is participating as the outside evaluator of the program and students from the school have surveyed customers at participating stores.
The stores receive technical assistance on how to purchase healthier snacks, such as low sodium items, and on how to stock and present fruits and vegetables, said Donna Martin, Healthy Corner Stores project manager at MARC.
Shayan’s now has baskets filled with fruits and vegetables just inside the front door.
Program officials have also installed “shelf talkers,” or display cards highlighting the benefits of healthy selections in the grocery aisle, such as canned vegetables.
“It’s the start of what we want to see change,” said Karen Elliott, a nutrition specialist with the extension.
The initial participants include two stores in Kansas City, Mo., including Shayan’s, and two stores in Independence, Martin said.
Organizers chose the four stores from nominations submitted by neighborhood organizations and other local groups.
Program officials said they hope to begin the second round of nominations in January. Their goal is to have 20 stores participating within the next few years.
Healthier Corner Stores is part of a broader effort called Building a Healthier Jackson County.
The Jackson County effort was launched two years ago with a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As part of the initiative to promote healthy lifestyles, Building a Healthier Jackson County includes efforts to reduce tobacco use and increase access to preventive health care.
Healthy Corner Stores coincides with efforts to build grocery stores in parts of the city that lack easy access to healthy items such as fruits and vegetables. Truman Medical Centers, for instance, has an $11.5 million plan to construct a 35,000-square-foot market at 27th Street and Troost Avenue.
“It’s not just about building grocery stores,” Martin said. “It’s about building a food system.”
She said food pantries and farmers markets were part of the mix, too.
In building Healthy Corner Stores, Martin said, one goal is make it easier for convenience stores to stock fresh items.
She said program officials have discussed options with Cultivate Kansas City, a nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture.
Martin said that once the program has enough stores, it might be possible to form a purchasing cooperative.
That would assist Shayan’s owner, Kayshah Parki, who said the lack of suppliers who sell small quantities has hindered his efforts to carry fresh produce.
Nor have his customers clamored for fresh food, Parki said.
But when surveyed by the KU Med students in late summer, Martin said, more than three quarters of the respondents said they were either “very interested” or “somewhat interested” in having healthier food options at the store.
Martin said officials had studied a similar initiative in St. Louis. They visited one shop where the owner said the fresh food options had drawn new customers.
Parki said that’s one of his goals, in addition to helping the neighborhood and assisting the health department get the program off the ground.
“I guess it is the trend — you have to eat healthy,” he said. “You know, the trend for exercising, walking, everybody is doing that now these days. You know: be healthy and live longer.”