In the food desert that is Mattapan, health activists are planting an oasis or two or more, making fresh fruits and vegetables available just around the corner.
A recent study showed that Mattapan, which has the highest concentration of black residents in the city, is underserved by supermarkets. The limited availability of fresh fruits and vegetables creates in the neighborhood what advocates of healthy diets call a food desert.
Rather than wait until the cash-strapped city or state can afford to offer supermarkets financial incentives to move into the neighborhood, the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition is recruiting corner stores to bulk up the variety of produce and whole grain products they sell.
So far two stores on Blue Hill Avenue have agreed to participate in an initiative owners expect to be good for business and community health. Diet is a significant factor in the higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease among Mattapan residents.
“We say it’s about making the healthier choice the easier choice,” explained Rebecca Franckle, project director for the Strategic Alliance for Health at the Boston Public Health Commission. The alliance is supporting the “Healthy on the Block” initiative under a $2.4 million grant received in 2009 from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A public kick-off is scheduled Saturday, with a walk from the Mattapan Public Library to Mama Supermarket at the corner of Morton Street and Blue Hill Avenue. Since last fall, the corner store has displayed right inside the front door a wide selection of fresh fruit and vegetables, many geared to Caribbean or Hispanic tastes.
“We have a very high percentage of Haitian population, some Hispanics and Cape Verdeans, a few Asians and a growing African population, West Africans mostly,” said Cassandra Cato-Louis, neighborhood coordinator for the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition.
Participants will then stop on Blue Hill Avenue at Lili’s Market, which she said carries a big stock of 100 percent fruit juices, before taking in a cooking demonstration back at the library.
Three corner stores in East Boston have also joined what Franckle expects to become a citywide initiative. Another two in Bowdoin-Geneva are being recruited, Cato-Louis said. Like Mattapan, that Dorchester neighborhood and East Boston are underserved by supermarkets, as is Roxbury, according a study by the Philadelphia-based Food Trust released last month.
“Healthy on the Block” builds on Mayor Thomas Menino’s campaign against obesity and mirrors similar efforts begun in the last several years in cities around the country, including Providence and Hartford. Philadelphia has emerged as a leader, with 500 corner stores participating in a city with a much larger population and geographic area than Boston.
A 2009 survey conducted in six city neighborhoods, including Mattapan, found that most corner stores do stock a limited supply of produce, Franckle said. But the fresh food turns over slowly and sustains high spoilage rates. “Some of the store owners we talked to consider it a cost of business,” she said.
In Mattapan, the survey identified more than 14 corner stores, Cato-Louis said. It is the only city neighborhood without a chain supermarket. The closest ones are a Shaw’s in Lower Mills and a Stop & Shop in Hyde Park.
To help address the short supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, the Mattapan coalition launched a farmer’s market in Mattapan Square in 2007. But that market operates only from July to October — and only on Saturdays.
Asked why most corner stores owners in Mattapan declined to join “Healthy on the Block,” Cato-Louis said: “The first thing they say is, ‘People don’t buy produce here. There’s not a market for it.’ But the kind of produce they have is the kind people don’t want. It’s old.”
A survey of more than 100 Mattapan residents about food shopping, she said, found that “the vast majority of them requested fresh food and vegetables” in corner stores.
Mama Supermarket sees the initiative as a business opportunity.
One recent morning, more than 20 varieties of fruits and vegetables were on sale, some in plastic bins and others in a refrigerated cooler. The fruits included bananas, oranges, lemons, limes and mangos, while among the vegetables were potatoes, cassava, Caribbean yams and pumpkins, lettuce, tomatoes and ginger.
Asked how sales have been going, a cashier replied: “not bad,” though some citrus fruit was shriveled, a telltale sign of age. Produce prices appeared a little higher than in supermarkets. Cato-Louis said cooperative buying — if more stores join the initiative — could lower prices and also reduce losses from spoilage.
Franckle indicated that “Healthy on the Block” is in sync with a current trend that sees health disparities afflicting racial minorities as the result of not just eating habits but also conditions in the neighborhoods where they live — the lack of supermarkets and recreational facilities, and the disproportionate presence of fast-food outlets and environmental hazards, for instance.
The initiative’s goal, she said, is “making sure all residents in Boston have equal access to healthy choices.”