BROCKTON — Not long ago, a derelict warehouse sat on this patch of pavement, ignored and unused.
To most people driving by, it was an eyesore. To Jason Barbosa, it was an inspiration.
His family runs a wildly popular store, called Vicente’s Tropical Grocery, on Main Street. For decades, Vicente’s has been a slice of home, specializing in the tastes of Cape Verde and the Caribbean. The bean selection, which takes up almost an entire aisle, looks like a mosaic.
It’s perpetually packed, with shopping carts and customers dancing around each other in cramped aisles.
So when Barbosa saw the vacant warehouse, he saw a chance to solve two problems: His store’s lack of space and his community’s persistent health problems. He would renovate the old warehouse on Pleasant Street and, right next door, welcome a branch of the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center. And together, they would try to address intractable health problems.
“You can’t just run a business and not feel that it’s your responsibility to take care of the community,” said Barbosa, the owner of the family business, which last month opened its newest location after a $19 million renovation of the warehouse.
It’s an unusual partnership — a grocery store and a community health center, sitting right next door, sharing a mission — but to them it’s a natural alliance, and the answer to a problem neither could tackle alone.
Brockton is a federally designated food desert — an urban area critically lacking access to healthy food. Diabetes rates in Brockton hover near 10 percent, dwarfing the state average, and almost a quarter of the population lives in poverty.
The collaboration is informed by a growing body of research into how the environment, individuals’ habits, and poverty affect health, according to Sue Joss, CEO of Brockton Neighborhood Health Center.
“The closest correlation to good or bad health is your ZIP code,” Joss said. “We have an obligation to start to work with the community to address that.”
The partnership will focus on bridging gaps in access to healthy food in low-income communities, where families lack the time, knowledge, and resources to prioritize nutrition in the face of other stresses.
Inside the store, nutritional guidelines and labels on shelves help shoppers identify healthier options. Once the health center opens later this year, staff members will help patients navigate the grocery store with an eye to their health conditions and work with them to map out their diets.
“You need to provide people with actionable knowledge, rather than just say, ‘You need to take responsibility and eat better,’ ” said Barbara Ferrer, Boston’s former top health official. “Because that doesn’t really help people who don’t have a lot of money or resources or information on what eating better looks like.”
Jessica Hoffman, a Northeastern University researcher who specializes in childhood obesity interventions, said abstract ideas about nutrition have to be made relevant and digestable to spark behavior change.
‘If you really want to change consumption, dietary patterns, you have to think about a community’s realities.’Gary Adamkiewicz, Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health
“You’re teaching people how to shop smarter — it’s the provision of skills, not just knowledge,” Hoffman said.
At the health center, staff will also use an on-site kitchen to show patients — and, as grants come in, the general public — how to reframe traditional recipes and cook them in new, healthier ways. Eventually, TV screens in the grocery are expected to show the cooking classes from next door.
The majority of Vicente’s customers are Cape Verdean and Haitian, and tips on easy substitutions to age-old recipes — swapping white rice for whole grain, or turkey for Creole sausage — can begin to reshape how families think about their own health, Joss said.
But you can’t do that without first understanding the fabric of people’s lives, specialists said.
“Access is more than proximity. The question is: How do you create an environment that encourages better choices?” said Gary Adamkiewicz of Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “You start from understanding where people are coming from. . . . If you really want to change consumption, dietary patterns, you have to think about a community’s realities.”
One such reality: poverty. To help reduce costs, the grocery and health center plan to implement a reward system to make healthy eating more affordable. A switch from chips to broccoli, for example, will give a customer points they can spend at the store. Eventually, health center patients will get store credit if their weight or blood pressure drops, Joss said.
“There is growing recognition that it is partnerships that are really going to move the needle to create more catalytic results,” said Michelle Volpe, loan fund president at Boston Community Capital, a nonprofit community development financial institution that helped finance construction of the grocery.
Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter said the collaboration, which will ultimately bring 200 new jobs, will also generate economic activity for the city and serve as a crucial piece in revitalizing nearby downtown. The project benefits from tax breaks issued by the City of Brockton, the mayor said.
The parcel where the new store sits, at Pleasant Street and Warren Avenue, had been vacant for 25 years. The intersection is a gateway to downtown, and often people’s first impression of the city, Joss said.
“For the first time in a long time, Brockton is being viewed as an opportunity,” Carpenter said. The city has also committed to building new sidewalks and housing, which, according to Joss, begins to address other key aspects of health, such as physical activity and safety.
“Those can all be seen as small steps, but they’re really critical small steps,” Ferrer said. “And I would say they’re not so small.”
It was 21 years ago that Manuel Vicente Barbosa opened his grocery store. His five sons grew up in that store, and now they’re the ones running the family business.
“Growing up in Brockton, I know what this community is like — it’s a very tough neighborhood,” said Kevin Barbosa, who handles information technology for the store. “If we can look back 10 years from now and see a 360 here, I think my family and I can look back and say, we did it.”Virgie Hoban can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.