A comprehensive study on the availability and marketing of tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy foods has found that both locally and across the state, consumers are more likely to find cigarettes than vegetables at neighborhood stores.
That's particularly disturbing in Kern County, where heart disease, diabetes and obesity rates are among the highest in the state, said Matt Constantine, director of the Kern County Department of Public Health Services.
"The issue is very stark for us," he said. "In spite of the fact that Kern County is such a leader in agriculture, a lot of the marketing directed at children here isn't for produce, it's for alcohol and tobacco. And too often, those products are placed on store shelves next to Cheerios and other things kids like."
The California Retailers Association didn't respond to a request for an interview about the findings.
The Healthy Stores for a Healthy Community survey collected information from more than 7,300 stores -- including convenience, supermarket, liquor, tobacco, small market, discount, drug and big-box stores -- in all 58 California counties.
The goal was to shed light on what products are available and promoted in California neighborhoods. Nearly 700 public health officials, community volunteers and youth conducted the survey from July through October of last year.
Kern County stores accounted for 238 of the retailers examined.
Among the conclusions:
* Only 37 percent of local stores carried fruits and vegetables, less than the state's 42 percent.
* Alcohol and alcopops (sweetened alcoholic beverages) are sold at 88 percent of local stores and 82 percent of California stores.
* Of stores that sold adult drinks, 40 percent had ads for them near candy or toy displays, or placed them on shelves below three feet where youngsters could see and reach them. That's higher than the 37 percent of stores with such displays statewide.
* The average price of a pack of cigarettes in Kern was $3.85. Only Kings and Madera had lower prices in the Central Valley. The average price statewide was $4.30.
But there were a few bright spots. Kern stores were more likely to sell low or nonfat milk than California stores, and Kern stores near schools sold sugary drinks at the checkout area less often than their statewide counterparts.
Kern County Superintendent of Schools Christine Lizardi Frazier released a statement saying she finds targeting children with campaigns to sell unhealthy products worrisome.
"Over the years, schools have become increasingly concerned about the health of their students and the impact of outside influences on student behavior," she said.
Schools are trying to combat those messages with anti-tobacco education and teaching the importance of making healthy eating choices, Frazier said.
Mariel Mehdipour, director of community wellness for the Kern County Department of Public Health Services, said she knows a lot of the county's stores are mom and pop places simply responding to community demand.
The best way to deal with the problem is to educate families and create demand for healthier merchandise, she said.
Mehdipour supports providing store owners with resources that make it easier for shoppers to maintain good health, lauding programs such as the California FreshWorks Fund. That's a $264 million public-private partnership loan fund led by The California Endowment that helps stores expand the sale of fresh, healthy food.
"We need to work together with our retailers to create these kinds of environmental changes," Mehdipour said.