Where can you learn about COVID vaccines? For some Somali shoppers, at the grocery store.

Sarah Kocher
St. Cloud Times

ST. CLOUD — In addition to their typical weekly food staples, shoppers at four area Somali-owned grocery stores are also being supplied with information about COVID-19 vaccines. 

University of Minnesota Extension is working with local grocery store owners who cater to St. Cloud's Somali community in an effort to disseminate information about the COVID-19 vaccines. 

"Our goal is to provide the information that will help them to make a better choice," St. Cloud-based Extension educator Serdar Mamedov said. The intention is to provide factual information to help people make a decision about getting vaccinated.

Extension is working with Abdiaziz Obdiriye, who runs local nonprofit Community Grassroots Solutions, for the program that provides informational flyers to store owners who in turn provide those flyers to customers.

The grocery store owners serve as "vaccine ambassadors," Mamedov said.

A sign on the COVID-19 vaccine is posted Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at 33rd Meat & Grocery in St. Cloud.

How the program works

Mamedov said the effort started in mid-August and is intended to provide community members with information at places they would be going anyway. The stores tend to have loyal customers, and each store is able to reach out to more than 500 people, Mamedov said.

"There's a high chance of being exposed to the information," he said.

There's also the added element of trust. Mamedov said the halal stores are a natural place for members of the St. Cloud Somali community to learn about important goings-on in the community.

"They trust their store owners, and they are more receptive to accept information from them," Mamedov said.

33rd Meat & Grocery owner Hussein Farah talks about the store's COVID-19 information efforts Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, in St. Cloud.

The flyers will be updated as new information comes forward about vaccines or variants, as well as when Extension receives feedback, passed along through store owners and Obdiriye, on topics customers have questions about.

The first flyers featured local Somali leaders and their testimonies about receiving COVID-19 vaccines.

"It helps to address vaccine hesitancy," Mamedov said. "They need to see people from their community accepting vaccines. ... It's more effective if the community leaders talk about the vaccine and they are encouraging the community members to follow their steps."

Obdiriye said many members of St. Cloud's Somali community are front-line workers in factories, grocery stores and nursing homes. So when the COVID-19 pandemic began, a lot of people were affected. He said most of the people he or store owners talk to are vaccinated.

Abdiaziz Odiriye and owner Hussein Farah talk about the store's COVID-19 information efforts Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at 33rd Meat & Grocery in St. Cloud.

But as COVID-19 variants continue to pose a risk, "we worry about ... another wave of infection increase," Mamedov said. "That's why we like to get more people to get (the) vaccination."

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A grocery store owner's experience

The grocery stores in the program are spread out geographically: one in Waite Park, one in north St. Cloud and two in south St. Cloud. Obidiriye is in touch with store owners weekly, checking whether they need more flyers, how distribution is going and what questions they have.

Hussein Farah owns 33rd Meat & Grocery at 710-33rd Ave. N in St. Cloud. He told the St. Cloud Times he feels it's a good idea to distribute flyers so community members can protect themselves. He asks customers if they are vaccinated, and for those who aren't, he puts a flyer in their bag. He said he passes out about five or six flyers a day. 

A detail of the COVID-19 information flyers available Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at 33rd Meat & Grocery in St. Cloud.

His customers aren't particularly surprised to see the flyers in his grocery store, Farah said, with Obdiriye translating. Everyone is already talking about COVID-19. Farah said there is a lot of interest in the vaccine, and the main question people have is where they can get one.

Farah said he feels it's important to understand that the community needs to work together to protect one another from the novel coronavirus.

Mamedov said another round of flyers is close to being distributed, and they are also trying to share a media file with stores that have TVs for display. Obdiriye did an interview about the program with a Somali-language television station, and he's hoping those stores can play a recording of that interview in their shops. They are also developing other visual materials for the televisions. 

More:Stearns County COVID-19 vaccine tracker: 49% of people fully vaccinated

33rd Meat & Grocery owner Hussein Farah stands behind the main counter Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, in St. Cloud.

Funding for the project comes from the Cooperative Extension System to promote immunization education through relevant messaging and innovative models, Mamedov said. Store owners who participate in the project do receive some financial support, Mamedov said.

"We recognize that they still need to spend some time engaging with their customers," he said.

Sarah Kocher is the business reporter for the St. Cloud Times. Reach her at 320-255-8799 or skocher@stcloudtimes.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahAKocher.

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