"Cilantro to Stores” brings fresh produce to corner stores

For many families in San Diego County, walking to the local convenience store for groceries is not only commonplace, it’s the only choice. Gas money is scarce, and reserved for trips to work and school.

How many convenience stores, though, stock the healthful fresh produce necessary to feed the family properly? The Cilantro to Stores project shows how fresh produce from local farmers can be made available to these shoppers, boost business for the store and farmer, and help keep families healthy.

Made possible in part by a Healthy Works grant from the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to the City of Chula Vista, the Cilantro to Stores project was designed and implemented by the Childhood Obesity Initiative - facilitated by Community Health Improvement Partners – partnering with the Network for a Healthy California, who provided various nutrition education tools for customers. Cilantro to Stores involves four convenience stores in western Chula Vista - Broadway Liquor, Bobar Market & Gas, Sunset Market and Liquor, and Eagle Liquor Market- that received new equipment enabling them to prominently display and sell fresh produce grown at local farms. Each week, “Farmer Steve” White, a Ramona farmer, delivers and stocks this produce.

Cheryl Moder, director of the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative, told UT San Diego that “another goal is for the program to help establish a distribution system for fruits and vegetables to these corner stores.” Moder said the project can serve as a model, enabling other small store owners to connect with local farmers.

Roy Mikha, store manager at Sunset Market & Liquor, said he is honored to help facilitate this program in his store.  Mikha has first-hand knowledge of the consumption habits of his clientele, and as he grew up on a farm, it is a natural fit to advocate for the consumption of more fruits and vegetables in his neighborhood.

“You guys can have real fruit,” Mikha tells groups of local high school students that frequent his store after school ends for the day. 

Cilantro to Stores answers an overwhelming request from Chula Vista community members for more fruits and vegetables within easy reach, and a cleaner façade at the strip malls where the stores are located.  We may be living in a fast-paced world, but access to something as simple as a crunchy, green bell pepper is a daily struggle for many of our neighbors. 

The effort to keep prices low and taste fresh by providing locally grown produce has resulted in a farmers-market style of availability.  During preliminary surveys in the community, an overwhelming 90% of surveyed residents confirmed they would purchase fruits and vegetables offered at the stores, but all remained skeptical of the supplied variety and cost.  Yet the community has responded so well to Cilantro to Stores that Farmer Steve made special additional deliveries when the produce began to sell quickly.

Farmer Steve is crucial to the success of this program.  Harvesting local produce, including his citrus specialty, keeps cost low and adds a unique aspect through the special relationships developed with the store owners and community.  A father of five, White recognizes the nutritional benefit of such a program.

“You get them started at a young age, kids, on fruits and vegetables, and it requires no additional training,” he said during an interview on a local newscast.

All four stores have agreed to continue stocking their shelves with local fruits and vegetables in efforts to maintain the program for at least one year.  Cilantro to Stores is yielding positive environmental and public-health change welcomed by its community.

In speaking to this positive community reaction, Eric McDonald, San Diego County’s Deputy Public Health Officer said, “From improving the design and walkability of our community, to increasing the availability and affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables, we are providing easier access for healthy choices for the residents of San Diego County.”

- Chelsea Fiss

For more information visit http:www.healthyworks.org/healthy-places

KPBS story on Cilantro to Stores:http://www.kpbs.org/news/2011/dec/08/healthy-corner-store/

UT San Diego story on Cilantro to Stores:http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2011/dec/29/fruits-vegetables-go-direct-to-markets/?page=1#article