Dr. Stephanie Jilcott Pitts
Stores that stock little if any healthy foods could be a contributor to obesity in urban and rural communities, but such stores could also be a catalyst for healthier eating.
That’s according to researchers at East Carolina University. Their two-part study, “Formative Evaluation for a Healthy Corner Store Initiative in Pitt County, North Carolina,” was published in the July 18 issue of Preventing Chronic Disease, a publication of the CDC. It is available online at http://www.cdc.gov/pcd.
Dr. Stephanie Jilcott Pitts, an associate professor of public health at the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, led a team that focused on “food deserts” — urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. This lack of access to healthful foods contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.
During the spring and summer of 2011, two ECU graduate assistants audited 42 stores in rural and urban areas of Pitt County, including interviews with store owners and managers and store customers. They found that healthful foods were generally less available and of lower quality in rural areas than in urban areas.
Store owners expressed a willingness to stock more fruits and vegetables if customers demanded it. Meanwhile, customers suggested they would buy and eat more healthful foods if stores stocked them.
“The take-home message was that corner stores can be an important source of food for many people in rural and urban areas of Pitt County,” Pitts said. “While corner store owners may not perceive there is demand for healthy foods, customers, at least the ones we surveyed, seemed willing to purchase healthier foods from corner stores. So if healthier foods are provided in the stores, perhaps customers would purchase them.”
Pitts’ study was part of a Communities Putting Prevention to Work initiative, funded with a $1.6 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Pitt County Health Department to tackle obesity and tobacco use. Grant money was available to help stores add refrigeration and other equipment to stock produce. The research was also supported by the East Carolina University Engaged Outreach Scholars Academy and the ECU Department of Public Health.
Four county stores, Mark’s Food Mart near the Pitt County Fairgrounds, Rountree Farmers Fresh Market near Ayden, Mid-Town Grocery in west Greenville and Carolina Country Fresh in Bethel, have joined the initiative and are offering fresh produce to customers. Mark’s Food Mart reported a 30 percent profit margin on produce in 2012.
Pitts credited the following people for their work on the study: ECU public health graduate assistants Karamie Bringolf, Carmeron Lloyd and Kelly Lawton; research associate Jared McGuirt; and the CPPW team of Jo Morgan, Jean Wilkerson, Diana Vetter-Craft and Chris Green at the Pitt County Health Department.