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District 3 event promotes fresh food options to boost healthy outcomes in San Antonio


Outside a South Side store, Nora Gonzales was among a small crowd at a free stir fry cooking demonstration in an area historically known for limited access to fresh produce. She snapped photos of Raul Longoria, nutrition education chef of the San Antonio Food Bank, as he stirred sizzling vegetables in a pan above a portable burner.

The savory aroma drifted around Pappa Zipps convenience store, where, years ago, Gonzales would stop after school to buy potato chips and soda. As a child, buying healthy food wasn’t a choice or in abundance at her corner store. And the vegetables the store did carry were not fresh, but sealed in metal cans.

She began to notice people in the Highland Park neighborhood struggling with health issues that ranged from diabetes to obesity. She learned that their conditions were linked to living in a food desert, an area lacking an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit. Now, she is encouraged that fresh produce and information about health-related issues are flowing into her community.

“It’s just switching to a different norm,” said Gonzales, 39. “That’s what’s super important, to make it the norm. This is going to bring a lot of positive changes.”

On Saturday, from 11 a.m. to noon, a coalition of healthy food advocates at South Hackberry and East Highland showed off the benefits of fresh produce.

The ingredients used in the demonstration were available at the store through a grant from District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran’s Healthy Corner Stores Initiative. To tackle the issue, Viagran partnered with the city, the food bank, the Food Policy Council of San Antonio, River City Produce, Happi Foodi, Compost Queens and the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine.

Other stores included Gas N Go, 4674 S. Presa St.; Highland Food Mart, 2402 Hicks Ave.; Red Rooster, 10637 S.E. Loop 410; and Stop By Mart, 4709 Pecan Valley Drive.

Anil Mangla, director of public health and research at UIW’s School of Osteopathic Medicine, said Viagran spearheaded the initiative. The city provided an initial grant of $50,000, with an additional $20,000 later.

For the first phase, the group mapped the locations of supermarkets and found that there weren’t many in District 3. They identified five hot spots with five corner stores that Viagran said were important to her community.

Each corner store received a refrigeration storage unit with more space for fresh produce. The group worked with River City Produce, which gave a discount to the stores, allowing them to sell the items at a low cost.

Mangla said that in April, the initiative’s staff discovered that the base line of fresh produce sold in the district was 612 pounds. He said a four-month study revealed that the number rose to 4,143 pounds.

“This was a significant increase that we didn’t expect,” Mangla said. “It’s working.”

He said phase two of the initiative would include randomly selecting residents and screening for diabetes and kidney failure. After the evaluations, the partners will compare before-and-after statistics to track each individual’s wellness.

A study that Mangla co-authored said diabetes prevention would save San Antonio $400 million in health-related costs.

Leslie Provence, vice president and treasurer of the Food Policy Council, said partnership was the key to helping the initiative succeed.

“As the awareness spreads, people get excited,” she said, “and then hopefully they remember to come over here and get some veggies.”

The program came at the right time for Pappa Zipps store manager Sean Jesani. When staff members approached him, he had been worried about his daughter, whose health had suffered from eating unhealthy food. He said he is thankful to be a part of the initiative that’s helping his customers.

“It really created a buzz,” said Jesani, 50. “This is what they need in their diet to live a healthy lifestyle. They need to stick to the main staple foods that will enhance their life.”

He said the program seems to be going in the right direction. Cashier Daniel Garcia, 21, said that on weekends, customers arrive at the counter carrying armfuls of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Vincent T. Davis is a reporter in the Greater San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | vtdavis@express-news.net | Twitter: @vincentdavis



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