ECU researchers look into healthy convenience store options

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – For some, Mark’s Food Mart in Pitt County is more than just a place to pick up a quick snack.

The convince store provides breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“I come to Mark’s Foods every day,” said customer Xavier Dixon.

State legislators want to get customers away from hot dogs and pizza toward fruits and vegetables.

That’s why they approved a $250,000 grant so convenience stores can provide healthy options.

While Mark’s has a handful of healthy options, it all comes down to what the customer chooses to buy: the apple or the bag of chips.

“They seem to be choosing healthier items,” said Stephanie Pitts, East Carolina University public health professor.

A team of ECU researchers is the process of finding out the answer.

Pitts and her students set up shop at local convenience stores, observe customers and ask them questions.

They even use a machine to test the amount of nutrients in a person’s body. There are a number of questions Pitts and her students are trying to answer.

“Do they actually buy the foods?” said Pitt. “Do they improve their diet? And ultimately can we see reductions in chronic disease risk?”

Pitt and her team can’t complete their research without help from customers.

“Customers are very shy, and they don’t want to talk about how much soda they drink or how large their French fry order is,” said Taras Grinchak, a graduate student at East Carolina University.

The students said the study has opened their eyes to the reality of food deserts in the area. A food desert is an area where nutritious food is difficult to access or obtain.

“There are not a lot of options for these individuals right beside their home, and their needs to be healthier options,” Grinchak said.

At Mark’s, the options are available, and the store’s owner says people are buying.

Pitts and her team will continue to observe stores all across the East.

The will compare data from stores with healthy options and stores without, and they plan to test 30 stores before the study is over.

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