Lauren Horsch, NCInsider.com
Soon six stores in areas of Eastern North Carolina that are considered food deserts will be able to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for customers thanks to a grant program through the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In the past two state budgets, lawmakers have given $250,000 to the department to reimburse small food retailers in areas considered food deserts for refrigeration equipment, display shelving and other equipment to ensure they can sell fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. Small food retailers are considered to be less than 3,000 heated square feet with a limited selection of food and other products — including corner stores, convenience stores and even bodegas.
In fiscal year 2016-17, the state allocated the first $250,000, and then another $250,000 for FY17-18. The initial allocation is going to help six stores in the eastern part of the state: Black Rock Deli in Bertie County’s Merry Hill community, Stella’s I in Elizabeth City, Tina’s Country Cupboard in southern Bladen County, Hwy 242 Grill near Elizabethtown, Food Mart in Jacksonville and One Stop Shop, also in Jacksonville. Each store is eligible for up to $25,000. It’s unclear how many stores applied for the grant.
Tina Stalnaker has been running her store, Tina’s Country Cupboard near Kelly, for about a year and a half. She said the store has enough space to operate both as a grill and a convenience store. She’s hopeful the grant will allow her to provide more healthy options for her customers.
“We’ve got enough space where we can be kind of a small grocery store,” she said. “(I hope to) offer more of the local farmers’ produce and some fresh salads for people to grab on the go, fresh sandwiches, more yogurt and lower-fat milk.”
It’s especially important for Stalnaker because she said they’re “out here on our own” — meaning the closest grocery store is about nine miles away, and others are 20-plus miles away. She’s still waiting for all the equipment to arrive, but she said, “everybody has been really nice and excited about it.”
Earlier in July, agriculture department spokesman Brian Long said the agency was preparing to issue vouchers for the equipment. “It took a lot longer than expected for the equipment vendor to complete the customized designs and individual quotes for each store,” he wrote in an email to the Insider.
Karen Pontak, grill manager at Hwy 242 Grill in Bladen County’s Ammon community, said the grant money will allow the family-owned store to get a new freezer and cooler section featuring healthy food that meets the American Heart Association guidelines. She said the freezer section will also feature frozen vegetables — like plain peas.
“We live in the middle of nowhere, so when parents come in and grab things for dinner it can be a loaf of bread and some bologna,” she said, but the grant will allow the store to provide healthier options for them. Hwy 242 also operates as a restaurant, and Pontak said they’ve started offering healthier options too, like some salads and sandwiches. She’s also hopeful they’ll be able to get fruit to have in the cooler section as well.
Pontak noted that workers from a nearby solar panel farm stop in on their lunch breaks and often want something “cool and refreshing” rather than a burger or hot dog. She said they’re still working on finding wholesalers to get produce, but said a new organic farm — the first in the area, she noted — will be an option once it’s up and running.
“I’m hoping it’s going to improve the health in our community,” Pontak said, adding that many people in the community they serve have health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure.
The six stores that received the grants are within a predetermined pilot area. Long said with the additional funding in this year’s budget, the department is looking at the possibility of expanding beyond the original pilot area, which includes 42 counties in the eastern part of the state. When the grant applications opened up in December 2016, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said 1.5 million North Carolinians were impacted by food deserts.
“Corner stores and convenience stores are integral parts of their communities, and can play an important role in bring[ing] healthy local foods to the neighborhoods they serve,” he said. But the additional funding almost didn’t happen. When the state Senate was in its late-night budget debate in May, the funding was removed and given to opioid addiction treatment programs. The funding was restored in the final budget.
Even in 2015 when the program was first proposed in the state House, there were concerns about whether it would be effective. Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, during floor debate said: “If I go to the corner store, I want a honey bun and a Coke. Have you been to these corner stores that have the fruits? I wouldn’t eat them if you paid me — they’ve been sitting there for awhile.”
Lauren Horsch writes for NCInsider.com. Follow her @LaurenHorsch.