Over the past eight years, Lydia Norris, manager of the Southside BP on Highway 27 in Carrollton, has watched the spending habits of her customers evolve.
Customers who used to come into the store owned by Carrollton-based Morgan Oil for high-calorie snack cakes, high-fat potato chips and sugar-laden soft drinks now look for healthier alternatives when making a pit stop at the local convenience store. Norris is working hard to keep up with customer demand for healthier food options, and the most popular items can be found in the fruit basket near the cash registers. In the basket, you can take your pick of whatever fruits are in season, including apples, bananas, oranges, peaches, pears, plums or tangerines.
But fruit isn’t the only star in the healthy food options show — onions and tomatoes are also included in the basket. Other items that customers have gravitated toward can be found in the refrigerated section.
“The juice we have back here is very popular,” said Mary Tate, a cashier. “The Naked Juice — it’s very popular. We run out of it.”
“Especially the strawberry (flavor),” said Norris. “All the juice over here sells like crazy, so they are grabbing juice instead of soda, which is good.”
The convenience store is also adding a kitchen that will sell items like turkey club sandwiches — a healthier alternative to artery-clogging hamburgers.
In rural communities like west Georgia, sometimes finding healthy food options isn’t always as easy as a trip to the nearest grocery store or farmers’ market. Healthy and affordable options may not even exist within a neighborhood or town. Places like these are referred to as food deserts, where you’re more likely to find a fast food restaurant or convenience store than a supermarket.
Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 23 million people live in low-income rural areas that are more than 10 miles from a supermarket. Gas stations with convenience stores that typically offer alcohol, cigarettes and high-calorie snacks are prevalent, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Limited access to healthy food choices can lead to poor diets, which has been linked to higher levels of unhealthy weight gain and other diet-related diseases.
Tanner Health System’s Get Healthy, Live Well has worked with several of Morgan Oil’s local convenience stores to make it easier to find healthy, nutritious food in west Georgia. With help from a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Get Healthy, Live Well explored opportunities to partner with convenience store owners and managers in offering fresh produce in their stores. This initiative is part of an overall effort to promote a healthy lifestyle and prevent chronic disease for residents of Carroll, Haralson and Heard counties.
In May 2013, Get Healthy, Live Well’s convenience store task force held a training seminar for 15 convenience store managers at Morgan Oil and Banks Oil. The task force developed a list of requirements to be designated as a Get Healthy, Live Well convenience store. Those requirements include offering at least three fresh fruits or vegetables, bottled water, calorie-free drinks, low-fat dairy products, whole grain options and an alternative to tobacco.
A single serving also must have 230 mg of sodium or less, 4 grams of saturated fat or less and 15 grams of sugar or less. “Go Healthy Here” posters were also provided to display in convenience stores to highlight healthy food and beverage choices.
“Get Healthy, Live Well wants to help make it easier for residents in west Georgia to find healthier food options,” said Gina Brandenburg, program manager at Get Healthy, Live Well. “Making small changes like grabbing an apple instead of potato chips can lead to a happy, healthy life.”
Michelle Morgan, owner of Morgan Oil, is co-chair of the West Georgia Regional Food System Collaborative that was launched by west Georgia residents who are working to create a healthier food infrastructure in west Georgia. The collaborative has formed several task forces to address specific goals related to food issues, including increasing access to healthy foods in grocery and convenience stores. It consists of more than 30 representatives from local organizations and is organized by Get Healthy, Live Well.
Morgan Oil, which has been in Carroll County for about 85 years, is working to be part of the solution.
“We still serve a need or we wouldn’t still be here, and some of that need is fellowship,” said Morgan. “In the morning, people come in for coffee. I have customers who come in here every day. They could come in once a week or they could go to the grocery store, but they choose to come in for that camaraderie.”
Since many of Morgan’s customers come into her stores for fellowship, she wants to make sure they have a variety of food items to choose from if they’re looking for something to eat. According to the National Association for Convenience Stores (NACS), convenience stores are increasingly adding more healthy and fresh items to their shelves. More than three in four retailers, or 77 percent, say they sell fresh fruits and vegetables.
The store’s vendors have played a large role in helping Morgan’s convenience store stay stocked up with healthier options.
“When you stand in front of the chip display, there is gluten-free, there’s low-fat,” said Morgan. “Most convenience store owners or managers do carry healthy alternatives because our vendors are carrying them. Our vendors are doing the research.”
She wants the public to know that convenience stores can fill a void for residents who can’t get to a grocery store.
“People tend to think unhealthy when it comes to convenience stores,” said Morgan. “We sell hotdogs. We sell the slice of pizza, but we also sell healthy breakfast foods. We sell apples, bananas, oranges and milk.”
Amy Callahan, manager of the BBW convenience store on Maple Street in Carrollton, also keeps a fruit basket near the register.
“It always stays stocked with Granny Smith apples, lemons, limes, Red Delicious apples, peaches, bananas,” said Callahan. “I’ll throw tomatoes in there every now and again. I go to the market at least three days a week and I’ll buy 20 bananas each time. I sell them for 50 cents a piece.”
Callahan has also noticed a change in her customer’s snacking habits since she started working at the store four years ago.
“Most of the time people would come in and get Little Debbie’s and coffee,” she said. “Now they’ll get banana and water. They immediately just go to my fruit basket and just grab fresh fruit. They like the fact that I always keep fruit in here.”
Callahan has seen people grab a Pop Tart then go for a healthier option once they see the fruit basket at the register.
“I’ve actually had a few people lay down that stuff and get a couple of apples instead,” she said. “Keeping our fruit basket full just really catches the customers’ eye and provides an alternative to the junk food that convenience stores sell.”
To learn more about Get Healthy, Live Well’s efforts to increase access to healthy foods, visit www.GetHealthyLiveWell.org.
Tanner Community Benefit
303 Ambulance Drive
Carrollton, GA 30117