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Hermiz Homi adjusts stock at Four Seasons Farm, which is part of Toronto Public Health’s Food Strategy pilot project.Mark Blinch

The closest discount store to Aunadrea Talbot, a No Frills, is about a 20-minute walk from her apartment on Lawrence Avenue East, a six-lane arterial road that seems perpetually plagued by construction.

Living in east Scarborough without a car is a challenge, and transit is an extra expense, so Ms. Talbot tries to walk as much as she can. But her arthritis makes this difficult.

Having produce available at the corner store near her home, Lucy's Fresh Food Market, has been convenient, especially when she's cooking and realizes she's missing a couple of ingredients. And now her kids, "instead of just going to buy a chocolate bar, will grab a mango or something."

Indeed, fresh fruits and vegetables are arranged in an open-air cooler and piled in wicker baskets near the front of Lucy's, a 900-square-foot store tucked into the base of an apartment tower on Lawrence. The presence and placement of produce is the work of Toronto Public Health's Food Strategy team. Its focus is on improving access to healthy food.

An important indicator of impulse buying, convenience stores are a large source of junk food and tobacco across the city, says Brian Cook, the team's lead researcher. The team hopes to make use of these stores – of which there are close to 2,000 in Toronto – to support community health, as well as economic development. If the model proves successful, healthy food offerings could also revitalize a waning business model that sees store owners work long hours for profit margins that are only shrinking as cigarette revenue continues to fall and customers move online to get their lotto tickets.

The Food Strategy team launched the Healthy Corner Stores project, which is funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, in the spring of 2014 to study whether a small retailer in a low-income area can make money selling nutritious food, and what impact, if any, these changes have on customers' overall diets. Lucy's, owned by Lucy and Yan Wang, was the first store to participate.

The pilot project provides advice and support for store owners to execute a business plan, including cosmetic improvements, procurement, marketing and sales. In addition to the attractive displays, the team helps install signs with a custom-designed "Good Food" logo and place small decals – in the shape of fruits and vegetables – on the floor to further attract customers' attention. "You need to do all that stuff before you even figure out how to shift people's purchasing patterns," Mr. Cook says.

They have found that a store owner can make good profit from selling fresh produce, but it takes a lot of work figuring out where to get it at the best price. The Wangs' shop now sells about $480 of fruits and vegetables a month. The property owners also purchase fruit from the store for a snack program they run during the school year for kids living in the apartment complex, raising the total to more than $1,700 a month, with their profit margin on items varying between 30 to 50 per cent.

Trevor Gordan buys the occasional pear from the Wangs' store but gets the bulk of his food from No Frills or the West Indian market nearby on Kingston Road. He used to go grocery shopping on his own, but now his children drop by once a week to help him. "I snapped my spine years ago and I've got nerves trapped up, so I'm struggling a little bit," he says.

Mr. Gordan, who is widowed, lives on $1,200 a month he receives from a survivor's pension. If the Wangs were able to offer a wider selection of food at a lower price, he thinks more residents would shop there. But he knows fresh fruit, with its short shelf life, is particularly difficult for small stores to carry in bulk.

"Some of it goes off pretty quick. Bananas ripen like nobody's business," Mr. Gordan says.

While a corner store cannot undercut big-box discount chains on price, Mr. Cook says, they can compete on value – providing good customer service, developing relationships with residents and selling quality produce.

Participants in their study often complained that discount grocery stores felt unsafe, sold shoddy produce and treated them poorly. "So people are very eager to spend their money at places where they actually like and trust the person," Mr. Cook says.

Since joining the pilot project last November, William Attia, one of the owners of convenience store Four Seasons Farms in East York, has found that customers who purchase fruits or vegetables end up buying more over all, per visit, compared with those who don't buy produce. "We used to have a small tray of vegetables and fruit, and then we always run out." he says. "There is a demand in the area from people asking for healthy options."

Mr. Attia tries to keep his produce affordable. He says his customers, a mix of low- and middle-income residents, are more price-conscious when they have to buy multiple items to cook a whole meal, as opposed to when they're just grabbing something to eat on the go, such as an apple or a banana. He's planning to introduce premade healthy meals, such as wraps, sandwiches, salads, as well as fresh fruit smoothies – all prepared using produce from his store.

But simply making nutritious food available doesn't mean customers will buy and eat it, which is why the study is taking a wider look at the myriad factors that affect diet quality and food-purchasing habits.

"It's not just the presence of healthy food that could have an impact, it's also the presence of the less healthy stuff," says Leia Minaker, a scientist at the University of Waterloo's Propel Centre for Population Health Impact and one of the project's principal researchers.

Recent research suggests that food-retail interventions may decrease the amount of sodium, sugar and fat customers consume, rather than increase their intake of nutritious food, such as fruits and vegetables; this suggests that people will forego their junk-food fix but not necessarily substitute a healthy alternative.

Similarly, the preliminary data from the team's study suggests the changes at Lucy's did not have a significant impact on participants' consumption of fruits and vegetables or on their food security, but the researchers are still waiting for more detailed information that will indicate what kind of effect – if any – the changes have had on residents' overall diet.

"People won't choose a head of broccoli if what they want is a quick snack to eat on their way to the bus," Dr. Minaker says. So the team is trying to find healthier – but still tasty – prepared options that might lure people away from junk food. The Wangs now sell oatmeal cookies made by a vendor that specializes in healthier snacks, and customers seem to like it.

Mr. Cook says that neither store is at the point where they can start cutting out cigarettes and pop. The team is also looking to bring more stores into the project and hopefully, down the line, scale up the healthy corner stores model across the country.

At Lucy's, Mr. Wang listens patiently to a customer who has launched into a tirade against the city's garbage department, interrupting once to let the man know his shoelace is untied. He thanks Mr. Wang, then stoops down to remedy the tripping hazard as his purchases are rung up – a pack of cigarettes and two bottles of juice. "He is a regular," Mr. Wang says after the customer leaves. He shakes his head with a weary smile. "Always comes in like that."