LAWRENCE - Walk into the Market Basket on Essex Street, the only full-service grocery store in this city of 76,000, and the first thing you see is a “build your own ice-cream sundae’’ shelf, stocked with chocolate syrup bottles, waffle cones and sprinkles.
A shelf of bananas stands nearby, topped with an advertisement for a banana cream pie recipe. At 6 p.m. on a Friday, shoppers stuff their carts with cookies, crackers, and other processed foods, generally avoiding the main produce aisle — all the way in the back of the store.
Last month, first lady Michelle Obama announced a campaign to bring large grocery stores to lower-income communities where healthy food choices are so scarce they are known as food deserts. The theory is that big stores' ability to stock products in bulk will allow them to sell fresh produce at affordable prices, helping to combat the obesity epidemic.
But residents and public health researchers say a lack of supermarkets is only one barrier to healthy eating in communities such as Lawrence, where nearly half of adolescents are considered obese, according to a 2010 report by the state Department of Public Health. A new store won't change people's eating habits or even where they shop for groceries, especially in immigrant communities where bodegas are part of the social fabric.
"It's a cultural thing,'' local grocer Alberto Santana, speaking in Spanish, said about the unhealthy eating habits of Lawrence residents, more than three-quarters of whom are Hispanic.
Most get their food at bodegas, tiny stores that can be found on nearly every corner. The stores offer prepackaged taco kits and other foods that cater to residents' cultural roots, but are rarely healthy.
A study published in last month's Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that the location of full-service grocery stores didn't result in healthier eating. The researchers tracked the nutritional intake of more than 5,000 adults for 15 years and found no relationship between their eating habits and proximity to grocery stores.
"People face a lot of different barriers to both purchasing and consuming healthy foods,'' said Janne Boone-Heinonen, an assistant professor of obesity epidemiology at Oregon Health and Science University and the study's lead author. "I think that focusing on supermarkets and large grocery stores is a really great place to start, but we really need to get more nuanced.''
In a place like Lawrence, she said, corner stores should also be a major focus because "they already serve the targeted population.''
There are more than 100 bodegas in the city, but she said most small stores don't have the bulk-buying power or refrigeration capacity to offer healthy food at reasonable prices.
At the Carolina Convenience Store on Prospect Street, refrigerators are stacked with frozen burrito meals and other ready-to-eat dishes. A tiny box of apples is dwarfed by cake slices in plastic tins.
Next door, Supreme Pizza offers two large cheese pizzas for less than $14 total. Across the street, sale prices for soda and ice cream flash across an electronic billboard in front of Walgreens.
Santana takes a different approach at his small store, La Fruteria. As customers enter, they are greeted with 99-cent boxes of strawberries (at Market Basket, a box of the same size cost $2.99 on Friday). The produce section, which takes up more than half the store, offers wrapped, precut bell peppers and tomatoes for the same price.
"Look at my cart,'' said Rosa Susana, a patient care technician at a nursing home who was shopping at La Fruteria after work on a recent Friday. She had stacked her cart with the cut-up vegetables, which she can cook quickly for her two teenage children. She can buy plantains at La Fruteria for a price of five, sometimes even seven, for a dollar, she said. At Market Basket, the best price she has seen is four for a dollar.
Santana, who has owned the store for 11 years, said he keeps prices down by maintaining close relationships with local suppliers and jumping on every discount deal he hears about.
And, he said, he is responding to a population that is increasingly asking for healthier food: "People are waking up.''
It may not be as easy for large grocery stores to make such changes. "Consumers, I think, have a preset determination of what products they're looking for,'' said David McLean, operations manager for the Market Basket chain. He said the store in Lawrence displays nonperishable foods more prominently in the front of the store because that is what customers tend to buy first.
"Different retailers concentrate on different things,'' said Christopher Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association. "When you feed a family, you're trying to make the best decisions you can . . . and obviously, a retailer's going to carry what moves.''
And in sour economic times, grocery stores aren't going to offer healthier food choices until they know customers will buy them, he said.
Larger grocery stores often struggle to make a steady profit in lower-income areas, and safety concerns also contribute to their reluctance to locate in the so-called food deserts, said Flynn.
In fact, Lawrence had two grocery stores until a Save-a-Lot closed a few months ago. Supervalu Inc., the owner of Save-a-Lot, was among the companies that pledged last month to add hundreds of stores to underserved areas as part of Michelle Obama's campaign.
Mike Siemienas, a spokesman for Supervalu, said that the Lawrence store closed because it was no longer profitable. He said some of the stores the chain has opened in food deserts have succeeded, but not all.
"At the end of the day, either people are shopping there or they're not,'' he said.
Neena Satija can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2011 The Boston Globe