PAWTUCKET — Long known for dispensing good cheer, sage advice, and the occasional hug, “Mama Ama” has wrapped her loving arms around a new cause: to help the residents of Woodlawn embrace healthier eating habits.
Ama Amponsah, who owns and operates Ama's Variety Store with her husband, Isaac, is excited to announce they are taking part in the “Healthy Corner Store Initiative.” The HCSI is a community campaign to add healthy options and variety to the food that is available at small urban markets to make it easier for families to find and cook healthier meals.
On Saturday, from 12 to 3 p.m., there will be a kick-off event at Ama's Variety Store, located at 957 Main Street. Ama and Isaac will be joined by volunteers from the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, which spearheaded the project, along with help from Farm Fresh Rhode Island, Kids First, and the Rhode Island Department of Health. Youth involved in the Environmental Justice League's Community Environmental College (CEC) and other volunteers will “make over” the store on Saturday by installing new racks and displays to better showcase the new healthier food, juice and snack items as well as the selection of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Following the store makeover, the HCSI volunteers and chefs from Kids First will help promote Ama's Variety Store's new items by holding cooking demonstrations on ways to use the fresh produce and taste tests of the snack items. These events are scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 27 and December 4.
The Amponsahs, both involved in various community activities and organizations, heard about the Healthy Corner Store Initiative from fellow community volunteer Arthur Plitt.
Plitt put Ama in touch with Amelia Rose of the Environmental Justice League, who helped guide the Amponsahs with their project.
Ama Amponsah noted that she and her husband, both natives of Ghana, have been operating Ama's Variety Store for almost 24 years. Nurturing by nature, the couple has always tried to make their shop more than simply a place to buy food and household items. Ama's is a gathering place for neighborhood residents, and “Mama Ama” as she is affectionately called, is now seeing the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of many of her earlier customers.
Amponsah said it is the neighborhood children, in particular, who she is trying to encourage to make healthier choices with their snacks and drinks. For over two decades, she has watched youngsters stop in on their way to or from school and grab things like candy bars, potato chips and soda. She now keeps items like fruit, string cheese, sunflower seeds, yogurt and fruit drinks and other more healthful choices on prominent display at the front of the store.
More importantly, Amponsah tries to “sell them” on the benefits of making healthier choices. For many children and teens, she notes, it is just a matter of getting them to try something new. “If I see them reaching for a candy bar or a snack cake, I will say, 'how about some fruit, or sunflower seeds?' Or instead of a soda, I tell them about the drinks that are 100 percent juice,” she said.
Amponsah's marketing technique seems to be working. In the three weeks or so that she has been carrying the new snack and drink items, she has been selling out of things like string cheese, baked chips and various juice drinks. “If we can just get them to make little, subtle changes, like 'eat this, not that,' it is good. If we can start them young with healthier eating habits, they can empower their friends and later their own children,” she said.
Likewise, thanks to a partnership with Farm Fresh RI, Ama's adult customers can now purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables. “People can buy the local produce at the Wintertime Farmers Market (at Hope Artiste Village) on Saturdays and here during the week,” she noted.
There are also more choices of whole grain breads and pastas, rice, beans and other food items that can be used as the ingredients for healthier meals. Here, too, Ama will offer suggestions to her customers on how they can dice up fresh vegetables with a little olive oil and serve these over rice for a meal that is just as quick and easy to prepare as many packaged or canned foods.
The challenge for store owners like the Amponsahs, however, is how to balance the extra costs associated with carrying the healthier food items. For example, many of the fresh or organic items require more refrigerated cases and newer types of displays. She said she would like to see more laws or tax incentives put in place that would encourage store owners to stock fresh items. “It would be good to get more of a marriage between the farms and the suppliers,” Amponsah stated.
Amelia Rose, with the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, said the Healthy Corner Store Initiative was instrumental in changing over two Providence convenience stores last summer, New Battamburg at 366 Elmwood Ave., and Mi Quisqueya at 933 Broad Street. The HCSI helped all three store owners to select new products, research their current and new vendors to find healthy items to order, and develop plans to improve store layout to promote healthy items and make the store more inviting.
While pleased to have Ama's Variety Store join the initiative, Rose said the Environmental Justice League is actually trying to make changes happen more quickly than on a store-by-store basis. In the coming year, the HCSI will expand its focus to identify policy changes that will support and encourage store owners to make their stores healthier, such as tax incentives, zoning changes, and funding for infrastructure improvements. This is important in order for store owners to overcome the many barriers that are involved in stocking and selling healthy products, Rose said. This policy focus is being made possible through a grant from the Boston Public health Commission.
Rose cited an example in Chicago where a change in zoning laws allowed some inner city Walgreens pharmacies to sell fresh fruits and vegetables. She noted how in many urban areas, there is no easy access to grocery stores, and local residents often have to rely on whatever food items are stocked in local pharmacies or convenience stores.
Rose noted that store owners don't want to be selling unhealthy items to their customers, especially children, but they need support in order to be able to know how to order and successfully carry these more perishable items. “We want to make sure that vendors and distributors know there is a demand for healthier products,” she stated.
Rose added that as an extra effort to teach local youngsters about making smarter food choices, the HCSI volunteers and Ama's Variety Store will be sponsoring a “healthy snacks challenge” at the nearby Baldwin Elementary School. Starting Nov. 23 and running for three weeks, each time a student purchases a healthy snack or drink, they will receive a raffle ticket for a prize contest. Ama Amponsah will also be speaking to the students about the importance of choosing healthy snacks and drinks over junk food and soda, she said.