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Bodega owners aim to make community healthier one fruit at a time

In an effort to decrease the towns obesity rate, the town of Lawrence, Mass. has implemented the Healthy on the Block/Bodegas Saludables program, which helps bodega owners expand their offerings to include fresh produce. 

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Cherry tomatoes are displayed at a farmers' market in Falls Church, Va. In Lawrence, Mass., new program gives funding to bodega owners to expand their fresh produce offerings.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Cesar Checo opened the corner store at Lawrence and Park streets in 2007. Over the past few years, he's made an effort to offer more than plantains and rice to his customers.

He has grown his bodega into more of a full service grocery store, providing fresh fruits and veggies to the neighborhood.

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His El Mello Supermarket was recognized recently by city officials for Mr. Checo's participation in the city's Healthy on the Block/Bodegas Saludables program. The program provides bodega owners capital and guidance in a push to bring more healthy foods to Lawrence residents.

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Checo participated in the program in 2015, and expanded his market to not only be a supplier of produce for neighborhood residents, but also a warehouse distributor for other bodegas in the area.

The healthy food is more affordable in large quantities, and the additional storage space allows the bodegas to leverage produce from local farms – something that would be more difficult in their small and scattered locations.

In all, 26 bodega owners have entered into an agreement to designate space in their markets for healthy food choices, making improvements based on an onsite assessment conducted by Groundwork Lawrence, the organization under contract with the city and the Mayor's Health Task Force, to coordinate the initiative.

In addition to one-time capital investments for things like refrigeration systems to store produce, bodega owners are also offered guidance on layouts that emphasize healthy food options, and credit-building services, in partnership with Mill City Community Investments.

"If you shop in bodegas, and a lot of us do, it's really easy to get to the rice. It's really easy to get to the plantains," said Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera.

But it's not always one-stop shopping, he said, explaining that healthy foods aren't always available at bodegas.

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The initiative is paid for by community health money from Lawrence General Hospital, as part of its Surgical Building Construction Determination of Need. The hospital has given or pledged $2.5 million from 2014 to 2019.

"That is directly going to the city for healthy initiatives," said Dianne Anderson, president and CEO of Lawrence General.

Elecia Miller, health task force coordinator, said after a state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education report was released detailing the levels of obesity in children in Lawrence schools, local officials began looking at ways to combat that health problem citywide.

According to the report, in 2013 about 45 percent of children and 69 percent of adults in the city were overweight or obese, putting them at greater risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and high cholesterol.

Naturally, Ms. Miller said, officials of the program looked to the places that are the first point of access for most Lawrence residents to get food: bodegas.

"We really wanted to make something that was culturally appropriate for our community," she said. "At the time we were looking at it, we only had one full service supermarket within city limits ... but we had a lot of corner stores, so we figured, let's work with the corner stores to see how we can improve access to healthier fresh produce for residents."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.