Latino store owners in Perry are learning how to make healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate foods more accessible, thanks to the Dallas County Healthy Corner Store Initiative.
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach partnered with Dallas County Public Health and the Iowa Department of Public Health to increase access to healthy foods and educate Latino residents on preparing healthy meals.
Three Latino-owned businesses in Perry are participating in the project — El Rey Meat Market, Oasis Grocery Store and Panaderia Mexico (bakery).
The project team includes Jon Wolseth with Iowa State University Community and Economic Development Extension and Outreach, Rosa Gonzalez, Iowa State University human sciences specialist, Jennifer Walters, Dallas County Public Health community health coordinator, and Carol Voss, Iowa Department of Public Health nutrition coordinator.
The project team conducted baseline inventory assessments and facilitated customer surveys and focus groups to learn more about the shopping behaviors and preferences of local residents. This information was used to help store owners develop personalized goals for their participation in the project.
Depending on their goals, store owners receive assistance with optimizing store layout, overcoming distribution challenges and becoming certified to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits.
Managers also receive training and education on business management, energy efficiency, produce storage and marketing.
“The Perry tiendas are truly family-owned businesses,” said Wolseth, “often run by one or two individuals. The stores need to balance beneficial store changes with owner capacity. We’ve succeeded in increasing avenues for sales through SNAP certification and generating interest in a gift certificate program.”
He said the project has also explored cost savings for stores through participating in an energy audit and teaching store owners about proper produce storage and inventory rotation.
“Finally, we’ve made available produce within each store more visible through small changes in store layout and signage,” Wolseth said. “The project generated enthusiasm among store owners who have been implementing their own changes to highlight their fresh produce throughout the project.”
The three participating stores featured in-store nutrition education in Spanish as well as free samples of healthy dishes, all made from ingredients that can be purchased in the store. On Saturday, Aug. 8, Gonzalez served up fish tacos with mango salsa at Oasis. On Sunday, Aug. 16 she served cucumber salad and cucumber water at El Rey, and on Thursday, Aug. 27, she provided samples of fried bananas with cream sauce at Panderia Mexico.
“The cooking demonstrations are a great way to remind folks to make healthier choices,” Gonzalez said. “People say the hardest part about eating healthy is not having the time, while others say it’s not having healthy options available. The cooking demonstrations show that cooking healthy is quick and that everything you need can be found at your local tienda.”
Residents who sampled the food and took materials said the simple recipes make preparing healthy meals easier.
Barbara Baquero, assistant in community and behavioral health in the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, is conducting a similar project in Muscatine County. Teams from Iowa State University and the University of Iowa collaborated on developing signage and toolkit materials for use in other Latino communities around Iowa.
The Healthy Corner Store Initiative is the result of a Dallas County Public Health food system assessment in 2014. DCPH convened community stakeholders to prioritize issues and identify strategies for improving the food environment.
Three priorities emerged: increasing access to healthy, fresh foods, increasing use of food assistance benefits (SNAP and WIC) and creating opportunities for local growers and small-scale food processors. A future goal of the project is to facilitate connections between the store owners and local growers.