Health advocates in Kansas City, Kan., seek to counter junk food marketing

Graciela Martinez tries to provide a welcoming personal touch when serving customers at her grocery store in Kansas City, Kan. She says a program promoting healthy food has already made a difference for her customers.
Graciela Martinez tries to provide a welcoming personal touch when serving customers at her grocery store in Kansas City, Kan. She says a program promoting healthy food has already made a difference for her customers. Heartland Health Monitor

For customers stepping inside Abarrotes Delicias, the noise, traffic and heat of the surrounding Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood seem to disappear.

The small store at 3137 State Ave. offers everything from tacos to snacks to money transfers — or just an air conditioned place to hang out and watch TV on a lazy afternoon.

Owner Graciela Martinez said she tries to provide a welcoming personal touch when serving her customers, a diverse sample of nearby residents.

“The clients that come here are mostly Latinos from Central America,” Martinez said. “Workers, mothers with kids, kids.”

In a largely Spanish-speaking part of town where there are few grocery stores, small tiendas like this one are often among the few places people can shop for food — and unfortunately the food offerings are usually not all that healthy.

“In these communities, it’s easier to get soda or candy or highly preserved foods than it is to get the healthy options,” said Vicki Collie-Akers, a University of Kansas researcher and community health worker.

Collie-Akers leads the Health for All Food Retail and Restaurant Initiative, which aims to improve community health by changing the way small neighborhood stores do business.

Whether they are entering a tienda in Kansas City, Kan., or a large suburban grocery store in Johnson County or a convenience store in a small town, shoppers are typically greeted by enticing displays of chips, soda and candy. And that is no accident.

Junk food makers offer big incentives to stores in exchange for prime product placement and promotion.

In many parts of town, health-conscious shoppers can easily bypass the snacks and head for the produce. But in areas that lack well-stocked grocery stores, that’s usually not an option.

Collie-Akers is trying to change that dynamic in Latino neighborhoods, where obesity and diabetes are persistent problems.

“We focus on how the environment supports or does not support healthy eating or engagement in physical activity,” Collie-Akers said.

It’s not just a matter of stocking some fruits and vegetables and expecting customers to buy them. Health advocates must contend with the highly savvy marketing techniques deployed by junk food marketers.

So changing how stores operate means thinking not like a high-minded health crusader but like a marketer.

“If you’ve been in a grocery store, you know that the impulse buys are right next to the cash register — the gum and the candy,” Collie-Akers said. “We’re trying to make it such that the avocados are right next to the cash register.”

Following the example of food makers and wholesalers that offer branded coolers, shelving and promotions in exchange for prime shelf space, the Health for All Food Retail and Restaurant Initiative offers its own coolers and fruit baskets, plus promotion on social media. In exchange, the stores agree to stock fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods and put them within easy reach of customers.

“We’re trying to make it almost the default behavior to get the healthy options,” Collie-Akers said.

But changing how stores operate and customers behave isn’t easy, according to Alex Ortega, a UCLA professor who has been involved with similar programs in East Los Angeles and nearby Boyle Heights for several years.

“So if you build it, it doesn’t mean they’re going to come, right?” Ortega said.

He said he has seen the strategy work well. Some stores he has worked with have reported a 20 percent increase in profits since introducing healthy foods.

Real change in community health, however, requires more than a one-size-fits-all strategy.

Many health advocates talk about the problem of food deserts, but some studies show that simply providing better food options in many neighborhoods doesn’t change what people buy or eat.

“You have to have health education and community outreach as part of the intervention,” Ortega said.

Healthy food projects are being undertaken in more and more areas with large Latino populations. In some of those places, though, the market interventions have been akin to TV makeover shows, with little commitment to the community they’re trying to help.

“They will spend anywhere between a weekend to maybe a month with a store and not doing the kind of back and forth that needs to be involved in terms of tweaking the intervention as the project moves along,” Ortega said.

Organizers for the Kansas City, Kan., program say they have been working closely with store owners through the first year of the program. And as they expand the program to more stores and into restaurants in the coming year, they plan even more community engagement.

They are now evaluating the first year’s achievements, though to hear store owner Martinez tell it, the program has already made a difference for her customers.

“At first, they were like, ‘Where are the potato chips?’” she said. “But once they got used to it, instead of buying potato chips, they’ll pick up a banana. And that’s better.”

Alex Smith is a reporter for KCUR, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.