This article was originally written by Arun Sivasankaran and published at SunSentinel.com

A program that encourages neighborhood stores near schools to promote healthy foods is being expanded in Broward County to counter the growing incidence of diabetes and obesity among children in low-income areas.

Spearheading the project will be students from schools that have after-school projects run by the YMCA. The Good Neighbor Store Initiative, which is a partnership between the Broward Regional Health Planning Council (BRHPC) and the YMCA, will be expanded to other parts of the county this year following the completion of a successful pilot program in two stores: one in Lauderhill and the other in Pompano Beach.

“Childhood obesity rates have more than doubled in the last 30 years,” said Teina Philips, director of the Council’s TOUCH Program. “Obesity has quadrupled in adolescents during the same period. Unhealthy snacking from stores causes a 31-percent increase in weight. Up to 53 percent of school-age children shop at neighborhood stores at least once per day. We got to do something.”

The program aims to tackle the problem by involving school students and other community members in the process. Students who are part of the initiative will help neighborhood stores find ways of labeling and better displaying healthier products. Stores that agree to be a part of the program will be promoted as Good Neighbor stores, thus giving them a competitive advantage over other neighborhood stores in the region.

“When stores provide healthier choices and offer then as such, profits go up,” Philips said. “It is good for business, and the community benefits as well. “

“Convenient stores mostly carry low-quality, high-sugar, processed food products,” said Anthony Olivieri, food systems consultant and founder of Food for Health, the Environment, Economy and Democracy (FHEED), who worked with the YMCA to build the project. “It is more profitable than natural foods. We are not asking convenience stores to store only healthy foods; we only want them to promote healthier foods that they already have in the store.”

Kwik Pic, a convenience store near Lauderhill 6-12, was one of the two stores selected for the pilot and will continue to be involved in the project. Only schools that have an YMCA after-school program and are within 20-minutes walking time from a convenience store were considered.

Plenty of convenience stores are found in food deserts, which are defined as areas in cities that do not have a full-service grocery store within a mile. Lauderhill has nine percent of all the food deserts in the county; the city’s food desert population is 31 percent, which compares unfavorably with the county’s 19 percent. The city has a diabetes mortality rate of 123 per 100,000, which is 36 percent more than the county’s rate of 90 per 100,000.

“Supermarkets avoid low-income areas,” Anthony said. “You find an abundance of convenience stores in areas where people cannot afford to buy healthy foods. The incidence of Type 2 diabetes is higher in economically disadvantaged areas where there are many convenience stores.”

The program is being funded by a PICH (Partnership to Improve Community Health) grant of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Randee Reed, BRHPC communications specialist. “It is a two-year grant; we want to promote healthy eating habits among people in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. This program is just one piece of the pie.”

The program will complement the Live Well Lauderhill efforts spearheaded by the YMCA in the city. After visiting stores and working with store owners to increase the visibility of healthy foods, the students will submit a program report to the City Commission in January.

“We want to do the program in 10 stores this year,” said Olivieri. “We will start with five stores and then expand to the other five. We are trying to find ways to help the store owners help the community become healthier.”

Olivieri believes that the program will provide a benefit for participating stores. “The department of health will designate them as good neighbor stores; banners and window clings will help distinguish them from other stores. There will be social media coverage as well,” he said. “I hope that cities will come forward to recognize the stores that are a part of the program.”