05/02/2014 10:46 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2014

Toward Healthier Food and Community Change

At the Herrera Deli Grocery in Bedford Stuyvesant, something is different. Organic juice lines the shelves in front of Sunny Delight. Fruit medleys with watermelon and grapes sell faster than chips and cupcakes. And on a recent Sunday, a customer requested healthier, vegetable-based selections for chips and dips.

In Bed-Stuy, like many of New York's poorest neighborhoods, nutritious options are hard to come by. So, as part of City Harvest's "Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative," Alexis Diaz -- who co-owns the family store with his father -- began implementing a series of changes to increase access to healthy, seasonal food at an affordable price point. They've discovered that what benefits the community is also benefiting their bottom line.

Alexis told us that awareness and education are key components of their success. Guided shopping tours help residents find and purchase nutritious food on a budget. Periodic samplings of healthy items, accompanied by healthy recipes, teach customers how to prepare unfamiliar foods. Simplified language and clearer signage helps market the produce in a more attractive way. And, perhaps most importantly, Alexis is a powerful advocate: he personally ensures that every kid who comes through the door knows the way to the fruit section.

Thousands of corner stores and bodegas -- the mom and pop shops in many urban communities -- are working with groups like City Harvest in New York, the Food Trust in Philadelphia, California's FreshWorks, and members of the national Healthy Corner Stores Network to increase the availability of healthy food in neighborhoods where access has been a challenge.

Efforts to attract grocery stores have gained traction, too. We are encouraged by reports, like the 2013 progress report recently released by the Partnership for a Healthier America, announcing that the companies who joined the Partnership have built or improved more than 372 supermarkets in or near areas that the USDA has classified as "food deserts."

These are just a few of many grassroots initiatives, government policy innovations, philanthropic investments, and market-based business strategies that collectively are creating new opportunities in high-need communities.

New York City alone has undertaken several initiatives to improve the nutritious landscape in neighborhoods that suffer from high levels of diet-related diseases. Six years ago, the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund partnered with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to launch the NYC Green Cart Initiative. Today, the City boasts hundreds of Green Carts in communities like the South Bronx, Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant. And the City's Healthy Bodegas and Shop Healthy programs have enlisted more than 1,000 small stores.

But there is more to be done. Despite extraordinary progress in many communities, access alone is not enough to improve residents' eating habits. While it is the first, crucial step, it's insufficient on its own.

Alexis learned this lesson from pineapples. Unlike mangos and kiwis, the pineapples sat untouched on store shelves. When he discovered that customers simply didn't know how to cut the fruit, he instead packaged pre-sliced containers that sold much faster.

Understanding the need for a more holistic initiative to promote healthy choices, last year the Illumination Fund launched Healthy Food & Community Change (HFCC) to expand funding for programs that increase access in New York City and combine those strategies with vital education and community engagement efforts.

We recently celebrated the one-year mark for the initiative, and used this milestone as an opportunity to convene our partners like City Harvest, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), Wholesome Wave, the NYC Food Policy Center at Hunter College, and the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy at Columbia University's Teachers College to talk about progress, discuss strategies, share program successes and challenges, and learn from each other.

Some of the progress is very tangible.

City Harvest expanded its retail partnerships, its distribution of fresh produce, and its "Mobile Markets" at public housing developments, and layered education into each of its initiatives. In 2013, multi-week courses, shopping tours of healthy food outlets, and cooking demonstrations helped more than 25,000 low-income New Yorkers gain the knowledge, awareness, and skills they needed to make positive changes to their eating habits.

One of our other grantees, LISC, launched "Communities for Healthy Food NYC" with four community development corporations (CDCs) in Bedford Stuyvesant, West Harlem, Mt. Eden in the Bronx and Cypress Hills in Brooklyn to create solutions based on extensive research into impediments that residents in those neighborhoods face. The CDCs will offer their residents intensive nutrition education programs, cooking workshops, health screenings, gardening programs, and youth markets. Additionally, LISC NYC will help each CDC partner create new or improved healthy food outlets and venues by tapping vacant or underutilized commercial or community spaces as well as improving existing neighborhood stores.

But other obstacles still exist, and we're still learning what approaches are most effective.

Whether we're funders, policymakers or the organizations actually doing the work on the ground, a challenge we all face is that outcomes for improving general health are influenced by many factors beyond our programs. The issues of food access and health disparities do not exist in isolation -- they're intertwined with other social and economic issues, including poverty, unemployment, access to health care, and the prevalence of unhealthy food. Just as we know that access alone is not enough, moving forward we must determine what success metrics are truly meaningful, appropriate, and realistic.

But in the meantime, we can only make progress through ongoing collaboration and transparency. For this reason, we plan to reconvene our grantees periodically -- as we did this year -- to share insights and grapple with the tough questions about "what works." And as we all move forward in the effort to increase improve opportunities in low-income communities, we must continue to learn from each other regarding what obstacles exist -- and ensure that our collective efforts make an even greater impact.