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Charlotte corner stores sell more fruits and veggies through county program

Marta Montoya, co-owner of the La Luna Tienda Latina, behind the register.
Nick de la Canal
Marta Montoya, co-owner of the La Luna Tienda Latina, behind the register.

A gleaming, glass-door refrigerator was squeezed into the tiny La Luna Tienda Latina on Central Avenue in Charlotte this month as part of a Mecklenburg County program helping local convenience stores sell more fruits, vegetables, and other healthy food items.

The program, known as the Healthy Corner Store initiative, is aimed specifically at parts of town known as "food deserts," meaning there aren't nearby grocery stores.

Local convenience stores sign up, pledging to carry at least six healthy food items, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy products, protein or water. In exchange, the county provides them with signage and, in some cases, new refrigerators in which to store the food.

Inside the fridge at La Luna, customers can grab fresh apples, mangos, grapes, chili peppers and fruits and vegetables sourced from a local food distributor. Stores are responsible for sourcing their own healthy foods. If they get a refrigerator through the program, the county will also provide them with coupons customers can use to receive discounts on the fresh foods.

Before La Luna got a refrigerator, Marta Montoya, who co-owns the store with her husband, said fruits and vegetables were spread out in different places around the store. Now, they're prominently located all together next to the register, and the refrigeration will help extend their shelf life.

Montoya said many of her customers are families, construction workers and other people who live or work in the Eastway neighborhood.

"Some people come biking, walking, in cars, and most — I would say 95% — of our customers are Spanish speakers," she said.

She said when county staff approached her and her husband asking if they were interested in carrying more fresh fruits and vegetables and receiving a new fridge to store the food, they said yes.

"We want to be that help to people — that they can come here, and if they want any vegetables or any kind of healthy food, they can find it here," Montoya said.

Nearly 15% of households in Mecklenburg County are estimated to be food-insecure, according to Emma Leon, who runs the county's Health Corner Store program.

Leon said so far, 24 stores have signed on to the program and stocked their shelves with enough health foods to receive the North Carolina Health Food Retail Designation. Of those, five have received refrigerators from Mecklenburg County.

The others are La Corona Meat Market on North Tryon Street, Mi Tiendita Mini Market on Eastway Drive, Rodriguez Super Market on Eastway Drive and Monroe Convenience Store on Monroe Road.

Leon said the county hopes to install a fridge in a sixth store this week, though details are still being finalized.

Mamie Harris, food security supervisor for Mecklenburg County, said the program can help get more healthy options into neighborhoods where grocers have been reluctant to expand.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal