For the first time in years, baskets filled with zucchini, cucumbers, green beans, onions and tomatoes stood by the cashier at El Porvenir convenience store on 13th and P streets in South Merced.
Carrying fresh vegetables and fruit typically has been too expensive for the store owned by Priya Sharma
“It ended up being a waste of money and produce,” she said because a lot of the fruit and vegetables would spoil on their way to her store or the products wouldn’t sell in time.
“Farm to Store,” a pilot program spearheaded by the Merced County Department of Public Health is working with stores like Sharma’s to help so-called “food desert” communities, areas where fresh produce or nutritious foods are scarce in stores. About 10 such “food deserts” exist in Merced County, officials report, and five of them are in South Merced.
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“On this side of Merced, the community doesn’t have a full-service grocery store,” said Marie Pickney, supervising health educator for the Merced County Department of Public Health. “I think this is definitely something that can increase health in communities.”
For three weeks now, four mini marts, including El Porvenir, have added fruits and vegetable to their stores grown from Her Farm, located on Franklin Road and Santa Fe Drive.
The aim of Farm to Store, Pickney said, is to help people living in those areas.
“If you have more produce that’s readily available in little corner convenience stores you’re increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables and people are eating healthier foods,” Pickney said.
Out of the six convenience stores and one supermarket in the southeast Merced area, 14 percent meet food store quality standards, like having affordable healthy options and being in easily accessible areas.
Sharma said many of her customers walk to the store because they live nearby and may not have transportation to grocery stores on the North side of town. Instead of buying chips or candy, she said, now they have the option of grabbing a fruit or vegetable.
In Merced County, 67 percent of adults are considered overweight or obese, according to data from the county's Health Department. One in four children in the county between the ages 5 and 12 are obese, the 2016 Community Health Assessment found.
“To be honest with you I think it’s improved my health too,” Sharma said. “When I’m hungry I don’t grab chips. I grab a cucumber, cut it up and put some Tajín on it.”
Isabel Sanchez, 78, has lived in the south Merced area all her life, and when it comes to grocery stores or places to buy fresh produce it’s “all on the north (side of town) and not the south.”
It’s always been a struggle to obtain produce in the south Merced area, Sanchez said, “we definitely need this.”
“I think it would be very beneficial on this side of town,” she added.
The city has been working on efforts to bring a grocery store to south Merced because of popular demand. City officials have looked into making the empty lot on West Childs Avenue and Canal Street the spot for a grocer.
As of now, said Frank Quintero, economic developer for the city of Merced, the lot is owned by the state and the proper paperwork that will allow developers to bid on the property “is near being complete and ready for circulation.”
“At this point, the City and State are partnering,” he said.
Monica Velez: 209-385-2486
Fresh produce now available at:
El Porvenir, 864 W. 13th St.
Amigos Mini Mart, 645 W. 11th St.
Adel’s Mini Mart, 331 CA-59
Winton Way Market, 7190 Winton Way