Manuel Vicente opened up Vicente’s Tropical Grocery in Brockton 20 years ago to make traditional ingredients readily available to the city’s growing Cape Verdean community.
“He understood the demographics; the kind of flours they use, which products they needed,” said his son Kevin Barbosa, who runs the information-technology portion of the family business.
As the city’s demographics began to shift with the arrival of a new wave of immigrants from Haiti and other parts of Latin America, the store added more produce popular in those areas, including plantains, yuca, yautia, and yellow yam.
But for the Cape Verdean family, meeting their community’s need does not stop with making traditional ingredients available, but making healthy foods available. To that end, they have become the latest Brockton grocer to join the Mass in Motion Healthy Market Program , a state initiative that encourages local convenience store owners to carry healthier offerings.
In Brockton, where a lack of transportation often makes corner stores and bodegas the main source of food for many of the city’s low-income residents, the issue of accessibility to healthy foods rose to the top among the city’s health professionals, said Alexandra Avedisian, program manager for community health and interpretive services at Brockton Neighborhood Health Center.
The issue is even more critical given the city’s large ethnic minority demographic with its greater susceptibility to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity, Avedisian said.
“Those would be the biggest health challenges we see,” she said. “Food deserts are definitely a problem in our city. People in our city who don’t have transportation have a lot of difficulty getting to supermarkets.”
According to state community health data, diabetes in the Greater Brockton area hovers close to 10 percent of the population, higher than the state’s 7.5 percent, while obesity rates are just slightly higher than the state’s at 26 percent of males and 22 percent of females.
At 968, Brockton had nearly double the rate of diabetes hospitalizations per 100,000 residents than the state in 2009.
“This is becoming an epidemic in Brockton,” said Leo MacNeil, senior vice president at HarborOne Bank, through which he organized Brockton Knocks Down Diabetes , an annual weeklong series of events aimed at educating residents about making healthier choices to manage or prevent diabetes. “It’s especially true among young adults and among immigrant populations. In the latter case they’re working three jobs, they don’t have time to eat or cook a meal, they go to a fast-food restaurant and wolf down whatever, and that’s not going to be good in the long run.”
The event wrapped up its third anniversary Saturday, but MacNeil said he considers this a crusade and is working to bring a diabetes symposium to the city this year.
“It’s about keeping diabetes at the top of people’s minds,” he said. “It’s not a one-day golf tournament, or a one-day walk, and then forgotten.”
Although the city is not lacking for supermarkets, Avedisian said most are clustered in the same area, sometimes across from each other, making corner stores or smaller neighborhood markets more appealing to some people who would rather not have to take two buses to get groceries.
“There’s a lot of fast-food options, and a lot of bodegas and corner stores that don’t provide opportunities for healthy food,” said Rebekah Gewirtz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, a private nonprofit that is pushing the state to create food trust legislation.
The food trust would give community grocers access to low-interest loans or grants to expand their healthy offerings or open new locations.
“It’s a huge problem that can lead to chronic disease and obesity,” Gewirtz said, “issues that plague low-income communities, and, frankly, it’s an injustice.”
By joining the Healthy Market Program, Vicente’s Tropical Grocery gets to be promoted as a “healthy market” by the state’s Department of Public Health, which oversees the Mass in Motion program, started in 2009 in response to the state’s obesity rate, said Lea Susan Ojamaa, director for the department’s Division of Prevention and Wellness. Alves Grocery and Petti’s Market and Deli in Brockton have also joined the Healthy Market movement.
“We have neighborhoods where . . . they rely on small stores and bodegas, so this is our opportunity to work with the store owners to stock some of the healthier items,” Ojamaa said. “You don’t often see fresh produce or fresh fruit, so can you get them to stock whole grain products, low-fat or no-fat beverages or milk?”
Mass in Motion is a private-public partnership that uses state and federal dollars and money from private foundations to pay for programs at the local level that improve access to healthier eating and physical activity. Currently 52 communities have benefitted from 33 $60,000 grants to promote these initiatives, Ojamaa said. South of Boston, Plymouth and Weymouth are also members of Mass in Motion.
Plymouth, in partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Plymouth, kicked off the Healthy Market Program at The Market , located at Pinehills, and Perry’s Market in North Plymouth, said Marcia Richards, a registered dietitian at the hospital who coordinates the program with store owners.
“Most of the small stores want to do this,” Richards said. “They want to provide information for customers. They realize how much people really want to take care of themselves and for many it’s difficult, so any way we can facilitate it, it’s good.”
In Brockton, some of the grant money has been used not just to integrate the Healthy Market Program in neighborhood corner stores, but also to fund credit card machines at the city’s farmers markets that also give people the ability to use their food-assistance cards, said Avedisian.
Vicente’s plans to continue its mission of adapting to community needs by opening the city’s first joint grocery store and community health center on a blighted plaza at the corner of Pleasant Street and Warren Avenue, in partnership with Brockton Neighborhood Health Center, which will also expand its operations, said Barbosa.
While it makes business sense to have the health center and its patients near the market, Barbosa said that for the family it is more than just about the bottom line.
“We wanted to do something for the community,” he said. “Pleasant Street is not the most pleasant area of Brockton. For us to come and change the appeal of that area, we take pride in that.”
The new market and health center, which will share a kitchen for healthy cooking demonstrations, are expected to open next year, he said.
“Access is the key,” Avedisian said. “If we can continue to improve [healthy food] access for our community members — access and education — it will improve their health.”