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Inside the Juice Box, urban kids find healthy food choices

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 12, 2010 - Shawn McKie and Angie Beatty are among the St. Louisans who will pay special attention today when first lady Michelle Obama talks about her campaign against childhood obesity at the NAACP convention in Kansas City.

McKie and Beatty have plenty of reasons to take note, one being that Obama helped to put the couple's own store, the Juice Box, on the national map. During a speech at the White House in May, Obama said the business was "right up my alley" because it promotes healthy food choices and health literacy for youngsters.

The couple said they had no idea Obama would single out their little corner store for recognition when they were invited to an event at the White House on May 22. There, Obama talked about local initiatives aimed at improving communities. In passing, she cited McKie and Beatty's enterprise as an example of a movement to "transform lives and lift up communities" through "good ideas and successful programs." Such projects, Obama said, "can go from changing a handful of lives to making a difference on a much larger scale."

Instead of aisles, "the Juice Box has shelves along the walls with affordable snacks," Obama said, adding that she understood that the place also offered space for art, education and exercise activities.

Getting to Washington for the event wasn't easy for the two entrepreneurs. Beatty says their frustrations included coping with a canceled flight, enduring Washington's heat wave and Beatty's personal "pain of squeezing into a pair of peep-toe pumps." But none of that overshadowed their enthusiasm for being singled out unexpectedly by the first lady.

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Located at 3003 Arsenal St., the Juice Box stands apart from other businesses in the neighborhood. The lettering on the sign above the store is colorful, an animated look that's inviting to kids in the same way that a gingerbread house might entice them. The difference is that youngsters won't find much calorie-filled, starchy food inside.

McKie says the business represents an effort to reimagining the corner store as a "one-stop shop" for nutritious but affordable food, a place where residents have access to free exercise activities and literacy education as well. The goal, he says, is to promote the store as a cool place to visit because it doesn't sell alcohol, tobacco, highly processed food or lottery tickets.

While McKie manages the store, Beatty spends part of her day on Juice Project health literacy activities throughout St. Louis. One of the products used to engage youngsters is an inflatable child-size doll that's plastered with lots of labels for junk food and foods that are presumed to be healthy.

Beatty remembers doing a program at the History Museum where she says even well-informed youngsters were surprised to learn the high levels of sodium were common even in canned soup and other products that the youngsters learned were healthy only if consumed in moderation.

"This is why we are at risk," Beatty says of African American youngsters in particular. "Just consuming a steady diet of high sodium food puts you at risk."

The couple are particularly concerned that too little exercise, the influence of the media, particularly television, and limited access to fruits, vegetables and organic and unprocessed food are all among factors that cause some poor blacks to succumb to preventable illnesses, such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

McKiem, who describes himself as a social entrepreneur, a vegan and a long-time runner, has a background in franchise management. He has managed General Nutrition Center stores in Atlanta. He eventually opened his first Juice Box store in Augusta, Ga., before relocating to St. Louis.

Beatty, who earned a doctorate in communication from the University of Michigan in 2005, came to St. Louis to join the faculty at St. Louis University. After she and McKie met, their interest in healthy food and health literacy led her to join McKie in opening a new Juice Box store in St. Louis in 2008.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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