It can be hard to give away money to buy fruit and vegetables

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On a recent Saturday, Daniel Rizik-Baer stands watch outside of Sam’s Corner Market in MacArthur Park. He's with a nonprofit that has recruited participants in a new program that gives up to $50 a month in extra assistance to some low-income people to buy fruits and vegetables here.

Because 26 people have expressed interest, Rizik-Baer, project director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, has had to move a workshop about the federally-funded program down the street. 

But when Rizik-Baer finally makes it to the workshop, no one is there. 

"Yeah, this is interesting," he says. And then without missing a beat, he goes straight to a possible solution: "We might have to do home visits—individual home visits—where we sign people up in their living rooms."

Rizik-Baer insists that this is completely within the realm of what he signed up for. In a situation such as this, it's his job to figure out why people didn't show up, and solve the riddle of how to get them to buy into a new idea.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture funds the initiative. Under its rules, people on the CalFresh program - formerly food stamps - who spend up to $50 at Sam's Corner Market can get vouchers for the same amount each month to buy fruits and vegetables there.

Similar programs, which match federal nutrition benefits with vouchers to spend on fruits and vegetables, have existed at farmers’ markets since 2009, but this is the first time that a program like this has been offered at a mom-and-pop corner store. The Food Policy Council, in partnership with the Youth Policy Institute, specifically wanted to pilot the program in a corner grocery, because in many neighborhoods, these are the only places people can shop for food.

Finding a store owner to work with, it turns out, was fairly easy, because Andy Lee, who took over his parents’ grocery three years ago, was already motivated to make his store healthier—he even changed the name from "Sam’s Corner Liquor Store" to "Sam’s Corner Market" and started carrying a modest selection of produce geared towards his mostly Latino customers: tomatoes, chilis and chayote squash, among others.

"I want to be able to shop at my own market," Lee says. He says most corner stores sell "run-of-the-mill, unhealthy stuff, kind-of like pumping poison into the community. I don’t want to be that guy."

But to be a different kind of guy, with a different kind of store, he needs a different distributor.

"It’s hard to find Greek yogurt or Kashi cereals or something whole grain," he explains. "Because distributors don’t think they can sell it, so they don’t get it in."

The Food Policy Council, along with the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network and the Asian Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance, solved this problem by creating their own distributor: Community Markets Purchasing Real and Affordable Foods, also called COMPRA Foods, to provide small markets, like Lee's, with healthy foods. Lee has already received some fig bars with no added sugar from COMPRA that seem to be selling well.

Sandra Contreras of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council recruits CalFresh customers for the program, which offers up to $50 a month in vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables at Sam's Corner Market in MacArthur Park.
Sandra Contreras of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council recruits CalFresh customers for the program, which offers up to $50 a month in vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables at Sam's Corner Market in MacArthur Park. Devin Browne/KPCC

So if there are customers who like healthy food, why is it so difficult to get people to sign up for a program that offers extra money every month to buy produce? And why didn’t anyone come to the workshop?
 
"There was a myriad of reasons why people couldn’t make it," says Rizik-Baer. "Someone hurt their ankle, there was a free toy giveaway, somebody forgot, other things came up."
 
A few days after the failed workshop, Rizik-Baer is at it again, just trying to get people signed up for the program. The rules require that they participate in two workshops, but he'll worry about that later.

Rizik-Baer puts bright, new signs in Sam's Corner Market, labeling all of the produce. He has his team make a lot of phone calls, and he again stands outside the store, watching for possible recruits.

He has slightly more success this time. Two of the 10 people who say they’re going to enroll show up. One of them is Delamy Zelaya, a mom to a little boy who’s overweight and a foster mom to another little boy who has diabetes. Like Lee, she’s highly motivated.

"We’re eating more vegetables," she says through an interpreter. "I bought a steamer and we steam all our vegetables. And I grill chicken. We also make soups with vegetables inside."

Zelaya is the eighth person to officially enroll in the program. This is the Food Policy Council's third enrollment push over the past month. The minimum goal is 20 particpants. 

"We're getting there," Rizik-Baer says.

But of the six who originally signed up over the previous month, only three have used their vouchers. And Lucy Lee, who works at Sam's Corner Market, says that most of them, like Zelaya, were already buying fresh produce. But, she adds, there is one customer who gives her hope.

"He would constantly buy other stuff—mostly Clippers cigarettes—rather than produce," Lee says. "But since he has the program he’s been coming more often and buying more of the vegetables rather than the other stuff that he used to get."
 
After all of the calls and advertising and hours of outreach on the street, it's a victory, albeit a small one.

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