Gail Mitchell of the Chicora-Cherokee section of North Charleston admits her diet is unhealthy. At 50 years old, she mostly eats fried chicken or salt-laden Chinese food.

She hasn't touched a fresh vegetable in more than a year. "I just don't have a taste for them," she said.

That's something North Charleston hopes to change.

City officials last week announced a grant project aimed at sparking a dramatic turnaround in local diet habits. The target zone is the southern end of North Charleston, where the lack of a local supermarket often means meals are laden with the worst that fast-food can offer.

"We recognize the area is a 'food desert,' that there is no nearby grocery store," said Kyle Lahm of the city's office on Education, Youth and Family.

But even when there is access to fresh fruits and vegetables, generations-old cooking habits that rely heavily on starches remain prominent, contributing to the cycle of diet-related diseases, Lahm said. "We need to get those folks to start using the healthy foods that we know are good for them," she said.

North Charleston is one of 40 U.S. cities chosen to be part of a health and welfare grant program designed to improve communities' health. It will focus on physical activity, nutrition and tobacco cessation while combating obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The $25,000 award is organized under the National Association of County and City Health Officials, which represents more than 2,800 local health departments across the country.

Over the coming months, project members hope to fan out in the Chicora-Cherokee community, bringing their good diet message into local schools and businesses where healthy habits will be stressed, taught and coached. Officials also hope to adopt at least one large area employer to concentrate their efforts.

Chicora-Cherokee is a prime candidate for the grant, Lahm said. The area is largely low-income and one of the poorest sections of the city. Many of the children come from single-parent households and the nearest full-service grocery store is miles away.

One message of change, Lahm said, could be as simple as brown rice is a far more healthy alternative than white rice.

"It's not going to happen overnight," she warned of trying to make drastic family dining changes. Members of the effort, which is in its early stage, include community leaders, various medical associations, Trident United Way and others.

Mitchell isn't alone in going without fresh vegetables in her diet. Lula Legare, 68, said she eats fresh vegetables but only "at times." Her favorites include greens, carrots and cabbage.

Some of the stores that sell fruits or vegetables around Chicora-Cherokee also say that even when they are offered, the items often rot on the shelves because there is such low demand.

"Every week we buy bananas and we throw them in the garbage," said Ali-Saadeh, clerk at the Circle A store on Spruill Avenue, as he showed off an assortment of browning bananas and spoiling mangos inside the store.

Most of his customers skip anything "good" that's offered, he said, in favor of "cakes, candies, chips, ice cream."

Even when he tries to give the fruit away, he said, there are no takers.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551, or skropf@postandcourier.com.