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Health-med-fit
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Pilot program allows Lincoln convenience store food shoppers to find healthy choices

It's a U-Stop convenience store, a place synonymous with chips and candy bars, beer and pop.

But as you walk in the door, just to your right, is a fruit display — three baskets with fresh oranges, apples and bananas.

And back near the cooler is another rack, with cups of fresh pineapple, carrots, grapes and sliced bananas.

The U-Stop at 21st and K streets is one of four convenience stores in Lincoln — two U-Stops and two Stop 'N Shops — that are part of a pilot program, called Choose Healthy, where healthy foods are marketed with special display cases and signage.

The stores are all in areas where there are no nearby grocery stores and where residents typically have lower incomes and own fewer cars.

“This gives people healthier choices in places that aren’t always known for that,” said Chad Wollan, chief operating officer for Whitehead Oil Company, which owns the U-Stop stores. 

Convenience stores nationally are trying to provide healthier choices, he said. For the past four years, U-Stop has been offering fruit at its stores. 

The two stores where the Choose Healthy program provides special displays and signage have had a bit more success in sales, he said. “It heightens the awareness.”

Even cheese and salami sticks are better for you than a bag of Cheetos, said Andrea Koopman, marketing manager for Stop 'N Shop, which has two stores in the Choose Healthy pilot project.

Those same healthy options can be more expensive, so signage is important. 

Retailers want to play a bigger role in bringing healthy food to neighborhoods, on top of making money, said Vanessa Wielenga, extension educator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The pilot project started two years ago in rural Nebraska, with 12 retailers along the Interstate 80 corridor, aided by six local health departments and funded by a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant.

The focus is on five healthy food groups: fruits with no sugar added, vegetables with no added sauce, lean protein, low-fat dairy and whole grains.

This year the pilot program moved to convenience stores in Lincoln with the help from a grant from the Community Health Endowment.

Lincoln has pretty good access to healthy foods in grocery stores, so the focus has been on small ethnic stores and convenience stores in areas where people may use those stores for some grocery shopping.

Often the unhealthy choice is the less-expensive choice. So the focus of the pilot program is on making that healthy choice easier and obvious.

That is done with special signage, by placing healthy foods in more-prominent places, such as at the end of an aisle, and perhaps creating a kid-friendly (or maybe it’s a parent-friendly) checkout aisle, where healthy food is available.

There are even food demonstrations in the convenience stores.

Some sampling ideas were unsuccessful. Extension staff discovered no one wants shots of skim milk, even on a hot summer day. Juice was friendlier, said Meredith Hein, extension assistant. 

But she’s also seen repeat customers head for the V8 V-Fusion juices, or seen a child really like a healthy snack.

The statistics show why more Nebraskans need to be encouraged to eat healthy food. Last year, 36.5 percent of the adult population was overweight and another 30.2 percent was obese.

About 40 percent reported eating fruit less than one time daily and 22.3 percent eat vegetables less than once a day, said Kristen Houska, an extension educator. 

The extension staff managing the program have anecdotal evidence from grocery store owners and managers, who participated in the original rural pilot program, that the displays and promotions helped increase the sale of healthy items. 

However, participants also pointed to economic and cultural barriers to healthy food choices.

“A mom can buy a two-liter bottle of pop instead of a $2.50 gallon of milk. The pop goes farther on their budget. Is that a healthy choice? No. That’s an economical choice,” said one store representative from the pilot project. 

In Lincoln, the two convenience store operations are both expanding their healthy food options and extension staff are looking for additional interested stores.

Stop 'N Shop will be adding a store to the Choose Healthy program, at 16th Street and Old Cheney Road, where there are no grocery stores nearby.

U-Stop may provide double points on a loyalty card for healthy options early next year, Wollan said.

"We are experimenting, trying different things. Consumers say they want healthy options. The challenge is finding exactly what healthy choices they will buy," he said.

Wollan said he's a fresh pineapple guy, picking up plastic cups of cut pineapple. And he sometimes eats two hard-boiled eggs (in a cup) for breakfast.

But he’s also been known to get the snickerdoodle salad, with apples, candy and whipped topping.

Which has at least a touch of healthy.


top story
Nebraska motorists find shelter from the storm in the kindness of Missouri town

The most memorable part of Aakriti Agrawal’s Thanksgiving weekend with her parents had nothing to do with turkey, stuffing or pie — or even the time spent in St. Louis with friends.

It had everything to do with a windswept, whiteout, close-the-interstate snowstorm that left them stranded — and the folks of a Missouri town named Savannah who rescued them.

“You hear about these things on the news,” said Agrawal, a 2016 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who works as a data analyst for a startup in Lincoln. “You think ‘Those idiots, how did they get stranded?’ — now we are those people.”

And she learned, as one of those people, that the drive-by towns near the interstate are home to some very caring, efficient, kind people.

“It was a very small town and we were expecting absolutely nothing,” she said. "But these people took responsibility and took care of us.”

It was one of those freak November storms. In Lincoln, the 3.6 inches of snow recorded Sunday, which caused havoc on local roads, pushed the season total to 10.7 inches. That ranks as the fifth-most snow before Dec. 1 in 118 years of records. It's the most snow this early since 1997.

Heavier snow fell over Southeast Nebraska and into Iowa and Missouri, where strong winds caused whiteout conditions. Near St. Joseph, where Savannah is located, snowfall totals were in the 6- to 8-inch range.

Agrawal and her parents, who live in Omaha, had left for St. Louis on Wednesday. Their car broke down in Kansas City, so they left it there to be repaired and drove a rental the rest of the way.

Sunday morning was sunny and warm in St. Louis — despite forecasts of snow — and they had to get to Kansas City to pick up their car, so they figured they’d weather whatever storm was coming.

They got to Kansas City about 11:30 a.m. — and it was still clear. But their car wasn’t fixed, so a tow truck left ahead of them to take it back to Nebraska.

By the time they got another rental car, it had begun snowing, but they felt they needed to follow the tow truck, so they set out for home.

North of Kansas City, Interstate 29 was closed and those who wanted to keep going were rerouted along county roads they could barely see.

“It was basically a whiteout. You couldn’t see anything,” Agrawal said. “They rerouted us to this random road that led us through this small town called Savannah.”

Not far outside the town, their car got stuck.

Their first encounter with the residents of Savannah was two young men who helped them get their car unstuck. The Agrawals decided to go back to Savannah to wait until the storm let up, but got stuck again, so the same young men loaded them into their pickup along with all their luggage, and took them to a convenience store, where they settled in.

Fortunately for them, Cyndee Merritt and Cindy Esely had some experience with bad weather.

In 2007, Savannah residents had weathered an ice storm that knocked out power for days, left hundreds of townspeople stranded and convinced Merritt and Esely they needed to learn something about creating shelters.

The women had become friends when Merritt was the county clerk and Esely the county treasurer and both were members of a local emergency preparedness committee. So they took a class to learn the skills and equipment needed to shelter people from a storm.

“Yesterday was the first time we got to use them,” Merritt said.

The class had taught them well. The town had a well-stocked trailer from the American Red Cross with blankets and pillows and toiletries and forms people could fill out to inform the volunteers of medical needs or language barriers.

* * *

There was no kitchen at the middle school where they set up a shelter, so the women stopped at one of Savannah's two grocery stores already picked over by customers preparing for the storm.

The women nabbed the last two loaves of bread, some hamburger buns, cold cuts and chips, bottled water and coffee.

Families who heard about the shelter brought in crock pots of vegetable beef and potato soup.

When deputies brought the Agrawals to the middle school, there were cots and food, new blankets and pillows — and other stranded motorists.

A total of 21 people came to the middle school, and while some headed back out when the interstate opened later that night, many stayed. Deputies got insulin for one stranded motorist.

A couple with two young children stayed, as did four college-aged young men — one of whom was celebrating his 22nd birthday and recognized Agrawal from new student orientation at UNL. She was working there, and he was a freshman.

Agrawal also recognized Rachel Long, a UNL senior from Michigan. Long and her best friend got stranded trying to make it to the Omaha airport, where her friend was supposed to catch a flight home.

“It was a very Nebraska experience — everyone knew everyone,” Agrawal said.

Long said Google Maps was no help, leading them astray in blinding snow, so they were lucky it happened in Savannah. 

“We couldn’t see a thing. Google Maps told us to take a right on what we found out was a back dirt road.”

But they called 911 and spent a couple of hours in the sheriff’s office until the shelter was ready.

“It was really sweet,” Long said. “We couldn’t afford a hotel, we didn’t know anyone.”

Savannah, as it turns out, has no hotels but does have Merritt and Esely and a host of deputies, volunteer firefighters and others who stepped up.

They fed everyone at the shelter — both the volunteers and the stranded motorists — and the next morning served breakfast.

Then the deputies took the motorists to find their cars. Tow trucks from Savannah and surrounding towns helped free them from the snow.

The Agrawals' rental car, it turned out, had been towed. It took some time to track it down and deputies took them to a nearby town to retrieve it.

* * *

They arrived strangers, and left friends — and Merritt wouldn't change a thing. 

“I just love to do volunteer work,” she said. “I love to help people, so it just worked out well for everybody.”

Agrawal ranks this Thanksgiving as one of the best, and she thanks the kindness of the people of Savannah for that.

“They were amazing people,” she said. “There are no words to describe how that experience felt.”


AL Seib, Los Angeles Times via AP 

Engineers celebrate Monday in the space flight operation facility at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., as the InSight lander touches down on Mars.


National
AP
'Flawless': NASA craft lands on Mars after perilous journey

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A NASA spacecraft designed to drill down into Mars' interior landed on the planet Monday after a perilous, supersonic plunge through its red skies, setting off jubilation among scientists who waited in white-knuckle suspense for confirmation to arrive across 100 million miles of space.

Flight controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, leaped out of their chairs, screaming, dancing and hugging upon learning that InSight safely arrived on Mars, the graveyard for a multitude of previous missions.

"Touchdown confirmed!" a flight controller called out just before 2 p.m., instantly dispelling the anxiety that gripped the control room as the spacecraft made its six-minute descent.

Because of the distance between Earth and Mars, it took eight minutes for confirmation to arrive, relayed by a pair of tiny satellites that trailed InSight throughout the six-month journey.

The two experimental satellites not only transmitted the good news in almost real time, they also sent back InSight's first snapshot of Mars just 4½ minutes after landing.

The picture was speckled with debris because the dust cover was still on the lander's camera, but the terrain at first glance looked smooth and sandy with just one sizable rock visible — pretty much what scientists had hoped for. Better photos are expected in the days ahead.

It was NASA's — indeed, humanity's — eighth successful landing at Mars since the 1976 Viking probes, and the first in six years. NASA's Curiosity rover, which arrived in 2012, is still on the move on Mars.

"Flawless," declared JPL's chief engineer, Rob Manning. "This is what we really hoped and imagined in our mind's eye," he added. "Sometimes things work out in your favor."

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, presiding over his first Mars landing as the space agency's boss, said: "What an amazing day for our country."

Many Mars-bound spacecraft launched by the U.S., Russia and other spacefaring countries have been lost or destroyed over the years, with a success rate of just 40 percent, not counting InSight.

NASA went with its old, straightforward approach this time, using a parachute and braking engines to get InSight's speed from 12,300 mph when it pierced the Martian atmosphere, about 77 miles up, to 5 mph at touchdown. The danger was that the spacecraft could burn up in the atmosphere or bounce off it.

The three-legged InSight settled on the western side of Elysium Planitia, the plain that NASA was aiming for. Project manager Tom Hoffman said the spacecraft landed close to the bull's-eye, but NASA did not have yet have the final calculations.

He said that it was hard to tell from the first photo whether there were any slopes nearby, but that it appeared he got the flat, smooth "parking lot" he was hoping for.

Museums, planetariums and libraries across the U.S. held viewing parties to watch the events unfold at JPL. NASA TV coverage also was shown on the giant screen in New York's Times Square, where crowds huddled under umbrellas in the rain.

The $1 billion international mission features a German-led mechanical mole that will burrow 16 feet to measure the planet's internal heat. Nothing has ever dug deeper into Mars than several inches. The lander also has a French-made seismometer for measuring quakes, if they exist on our smaller, geologically calmer neighbor.

Another experiment will calculate Mars' wobble to reveal the makeup of the planet's core.

The 800-pound InSight is stationary and will operate from the same spot for the next two years, the duration of a Martian year. Its first job was to get a fast picture out. The next task was the unfolding of its solar panels. NASA wanted to wait 16 minutes for the dust to settle before attempting that; it was awaiting word Monday night on how that went.

Lead scientist Bruce Banerdt warned it will be a slow-motion mission. The instruments will have to be set up and fine-tuned. He said he doesn't expect to start getting a stream of solid data until late next spring, and it could take the entire mission to really get the goods.

"It really depends on how benevolent Mars is feeling, how many marsquakes it throws at us," Banerdt said Sunday. "The more marsquakes, the better. We just love that shaking, and so the more shaking it does, the better we can see the inside."

Mars' well-preserved interior provides a snapshot of what Earth might have looked like after its formation 4.5 billion years ago, according to Banerdt. While Earth is active seismically, Mars "decided to rest on its laurels" after it formed, he said.

By examining and mapping the interior of Mars, scientists hope to learn why the rocky planets in our solar system turned out so different and why Earth became a haven for life.

Still, there are no life detectors aboard InSight. That will be part of NASA's next mission, the Mars 2020 rover, which will prowl for rocks that might contain evidence of ancient life. The question of whether life ever existed in Mars' wet, watery past is what keeps driving NASA back to the fourth rock from the sun.