Neighborhood stores get healthy makeover

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September 27th, 2011

Omaha, NE – There are several different reasons why people in north Omaha have trouble getting to full-service grocery stores. Some don’t have access to transportation, and in many stores, the cheaper options aren’t always the healthiest. But a partnership with the Douglas County Health Department has some neighborhood corner stores receiving makeovers – both inside and outside.

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New signs posted around J-N-J Grocery Store promote healthy living. (Photo by Angel Martin)

For about a year now, people have noticed something different about the store that’s on the corner of 42nd and Bedford Streets in North Omaha. Signs below the J-N-J grocery’s “Meat-Beer-Produce” marquee now read “Welcome to your healthy neighborhood store.”

Becky Johnson is the co-owner of J-N-J grocery. On a recent fall afternoon, she said the store has received lots of compliments on its new look.

“They were very excited about the signage that been done,” she said. “Our front lobby has been a much friendlier place for them to shop, which has been nice to see.”

For the past ten years, Johnson and her husband have owned the store that has been a staple in the community for a lot longer. They’ve recently made some changes. Soda pop and juice drink displays once packed the entrance, but now, when people first step foot in the store, they’re greeted at eye level by tomatoes and onions, grapes and oranges, along with heads of lettuce and bags of baby carrots.

The inside of J-N-J Grocery Store before the healthy foods section was revamped. (Photo courtesy Sarah Schram -DCHD)

“There is (sic) a lot of people that go to work every morning,” Johnson said. “So they get their container of grapes.”

In north Omaha, most of the local full-service grocery chains like Bakers and HyVee are too far to get to for some residents, particularly those who have transportation needs. Sarah Schram is with the Douglas County Health Department. She said with a grant partly funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the health department has been helping corner stores revamp their healthy food section.

“We’re really just looking at neighborhoods, where maybe they had to travel distances farther than one mile to have access to healthy food options,” Schram said. “We want to help build those stores up that have existing capacity, and have the ability to carry healthier foods, and just help them do that.”

Fresh fruits and vegetables greet people as they walk in J-N-J Grocery Store. (Photo courtesy Sarah Schram - DCHD)

Diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity rates are higher in areas like north Omaha, where many people live in poverty. These health disparities are often linked to unhealthy diets. In addition to signs that read, “Choose Healthy” posted on food items throughout the store, Johnson said they sell beef with less fat. Although it’s more expensive for them to buy, she said they’re willing to keep some prices low for the health of the customer.

Sarah Schram said there is also an educational part to this program. On Thursdays, they offer classes at the neighborhood stores where they put on food demonstrations and taste tests.

“So that you can make the healthy choice the easy choice,” she said, “regardless if you are at the neighborhood store, whether you’re at work, at church, or faith-based organization, all those places, the healthy choice is the easy choice.”

But back at the store, around lunch time, several of the customers at J-N-J’s weren’t buying the healthy food items. Instead, they were buying sodas, juice, chips, cookies, cigarettes and liquor.

J-N-J is located on 42nd and Bedford in north Omaha. (Photo by Angel Martin)

“Part of it is that it’s hard to break bad habits,” Johnson said. “The habit of a lot of people is to come in and grab a pop and a bag of chips, and so we’re trying to grab a bottle of water and a bag of veggies.”

Johnson said they will continue to offer healthy food items, and she also admits that getting people to change what they buy is going to be a long process.

“There’s just a lot of really hard-working, good people in this neighborhood,” she said. “They’re the ones we’re trying to make a difference for, and provide a little change.”

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