Program helps local stores offer fresh food

Lukas Hubbard, who lives in the Lake Towers Apartments, said he’s been visiting the nearby Spanish Town Market more often, now that it’s carrying produce such as onions, bell peppers and potatoes.

The store has been able to make the changes thanks to its participation in the Healthy Corner Store Program.

“I love it,” Hubbard said. “I definitely do my little grocery shopping here to get my essentials. This has been a good thing.”

The Spanish Town Market is one of four neighborhood stores that received grants from the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority that allowed them to carry fresh produce and healthy food and reduce the food deserts that exist in the city. To kick off the campaign, an event was held Tuesday, featuring dishes made with produce available at the store.

Susannah Bing, the RDA’s director of finance and economic development, said the organization spent about $16,000 on each of the four stores, buying equipment such as dry goods bins to store fruits and vegetables, refrigeration boxes to keep food fresh and new cash registers to keep track of how produce is selling. The RDA also gave the stores $500 toward the initial purchase of produce, since some of the fruits and vegetables could go bad because nearby residents may not be familiar they could now buy those items at the store.

“The store owners are excited about it,” Bing said. “They’ve been able to upgrade in a way they couldn’t have provided.”

It’s still early to say how much impact the initiative will have on consumers — some stores are still a few days away from getting all of their equipment — but Bing said the initial word has been good. “The residents are happy to have produce available to them,” she said.

Jenna Blanche, who co-owns the Spanish Town Market with her husband Taylor and brother-in-law Mackenzie Blanche, said adding produce will be good for the neighborhood.

“People can go here instead of driving to Wal-Mart or Albertson’s,” she said. Blanche said sales of produce have been slow because many customers haven’t realized what the store sells now.

“People walk by and they have no idea we have fresh fruit,” she said. “This grand opening will build the buzz about it.”

The money for the Healthy Corner Store Program was part of a $1 million grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation, and comes from the Mayor’s Healthy City Initiative.

The other stores that received grant money are Kelly’s Meat Market, 7744 Plank Road; Sewell’s Community Grocery, 469 Elmer Ave.; and Beechwood Meat Market, 4850 Beechwood Drive.

Russell Santangelo, who co-owns Kelly’s with his wife Cecilia, said the grant is serving his store “pretty well.” A freezer arrived at the store Tuesday and produce boxes should come in another four or five days.

“People seem pretty excited to get frozen vegetables and fresh vegetables here when they get their meat,” Santangelo said. “They won’t have to make a stop at another big store.”

A grand opening will be held at Kelly’s on Thursday, at Sewell’s on Aug. 19 and at Beechwood on Aug. 26.

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.