As the The Bridge Youth & Family Services Healthy Together team embarks on a new pilot project in collaboration with Western Convenience Stores Association, their President; Andrew Klukas explains more about the project’s background;

WCSA New Logo copy

Last summer I was researching several US programs designed to make nutritious foods available in areas that are under-served by large grocers.  These programs have intrigued me because they view corner stores part of the solution to an epidemic of obesity.   I was seeking inspiration for a program that would make it possible for Canadian convenience stores to participate meaningfully in such programs north of the border.

Why convenience stores?  It may come as a surprise to many that there are over 23,000 convenience stores in Canada, and that each day the number of visits to these sites is equal to one third of the population.  This gives the industry as a whole tremendous reach throughout the patchwork of communities spanning the country.

Moreover, a recent Globe and Mail article – Corner stores mean solid neighborhoods  – discussed research findings indicating that the presence of corner stores can make neighborhoods more humane, and that the presence of a corner store can be “…a sign that things are in balance.”

Yet corner stores have been disappearing from many residential neighbourhoods.  Many of those that survive within these neighbourhoods do so by adding foodservice to their product mix.  These storeowners make do on very small profit margins and need to be highly responsive to consumer demands.   How then can they help lead a transition toward healthier food choices?

I was looking for answers to that question when I discovered the work of the Bridge Youth & Family Services Society’s Healthy Weights for Children Project.  When I met with their staff it was immediately clear that convenience stores and corner stores can play a pivotal role in the success of the long-term obesity reduction strategy that the Bridge supports.  They understand obesity is a very complex societal issue – one that requires a creative and dynamic response and includes participation and support from a broad spectrum of forces that influence people’s choices and behavior.

A pilot project involving one store and ten families launches next week on April 22 and will run for ten weeks.  It is intended mainly to support a broader conversation that we are all interested in:

  • How can we support families and individuals in their own community to make choices that support their health?
  • How can we support businesses to begin the health promotion relationship with new customers while they retain current customer satisfaction?
  • How can we engage those who supply the industry – manufacturers and distributors?

The initial goal is to generate both questions and answers to support a second phase.  Our goal for phase 2 is to start involving all parts of the industry—retailers, distributors and manufacturers. Although corner stores will continue to sell traditional confectionery and sugar sweetened beverages, there is a wave of new, healthier products coming to market with profit margins that equal or exceed the margins on the traditional products. Our role as an industry association is to help tie all of the groups together and expedite the transition to healthier products and consumer choices.

Our hope is that if we can positively influence people’s shopping habits at a young age, then when they are 30 or 40 they won’t be the facing the spectre of the obesity-related illnesses that people today are facing at that age.  It’s a long-term vision, but the future starts today and I sincerely believe we can make a difference.

We have re-branded the Bridge’s Healthy Together Children’s Health Program as the Healthy Together Convenience Store Program and are using the same visuals. The footprint concept is intended to resonate with both the concept of physical activity, allowing future synthesis with similar campaigns promoting obesity reduction through activity, and, more remotely, to resonate with the concept of ‘environmental footprint’ so this is a good fit with the broader vernacular of health, fitness and healthy living.

What I learned from my initial research of a somewhat similar US is that for programs like this to be successful,  we need to:

  1. Build relationships with storeowners.
  2. Start small.
  3. Phase activities.
  4. Make it easy.
  5. Provide support.
  6. Collaborate with others.

So far we’re getting it right and I have been singularly impressed by the commitment and intelligent support from the people at The Bridge. This is ultimately their project but we share the same vision, and so I’m hoping we will be able to reciprocate our support for a long time to come and to capture many others with the same vision.

~ Andrew Klukas, President Western Convenience Stores Association