by Ona Balkus
For too many Americans, a “quick trip” to the grocery store isn’t an option. In neighborhoods that lack access to grocery stores, many residents rely on small corner stores and bodegas for most of their food purchases. These small stores often sell predominantly processed, unhealthy foods, and carry little or no fresh produce. To increase access to healthy foods in these neighborhoods, local governments have experimented with either incentivizing these stores to start carrying healthy foods (as in Washington, D.C.) or enacting licensing policies that require these stores to carry a certain amount of healthy foods (as in Minneapolis).
One of the biggest challenges to successful passage and implementation of healthy corner store policies is resistance from corner store owners who perceive these policies as a significant economic burden. Most corner stores are operating on thin profit margins as it is, and in many communities they’re competing against lucrative fast food outlets. Why don’t local governments stick to restricting these large corporations rather than going after small business owners? If the goal is to improve the well-being of a community, shouldn’t we support local business rather than increasing the hoops they must jump through to stay in business?
Policymakers should take these concerns seriously, as a policy that causes corner stores to shutter their windows will only worsen public health and community blight. Further, a policy that requires ongoing government investment instead of developing sustainable business models is likewise destined to fail. Thus a healthy corner store ordinance can only be effective to the extent that it includes provisions that ensure that small businesses will benefit financially from selling healthy foods. In cities that have implemented these policies, the benefit and burden to businesses has varied widely. To maximize the economic development potential of these policies for both corner stores and the larger community, the following strategies are key:
1. Taking into account the needs and buying practices of neighborhood residents
For corner stores to profit (and for consumers to benefit), the stores must offer foods that appeal to community members. In some neighborhoods, shoppers might be willing to purchase and cook fresh, whole fruits and vegetables if they are available and affordable. In other neighborhoods, knowledge of food preparation is lower and consumers are looking for ready-to-eat foods like sliced fruit, salads, or yogurt. And of course, this will only be effective in neighborhoods where there is an actual dearth of existing fresh food markets. New York City’s Healthy Bodegas Initiative focused on bodegas in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Harlem because these were the predominant food outlets in these neighborhoods and offered very few healthy options. For example, leafy green vegetables were only offered in 2 to 4 percent of bodegas in Harlem. The implementing city agency should assist stores with small pilots of various types of food that will help stores gauge what will sell in their neighborhoods, and they can scale up on the type of foods that are more popular.
2. Marketing and displaying healthy foods effectively
One large hurdle to effective implementation is that many small corner stores do not have refrigeration units and are not used to culling produce that is bruised or overripe. A city government implementing a healthy corner store policy should provide technical and financial assistance to stores, such as loans and grants for infrastructure improvements, and trainings on how to display produce. Some stores have had success with displaying fresh produce outside the store on the street, which attracts customers to purchase both the produce and other items in the store. Stores could also offer grab-and-go items like bananas, sliced apples and nuts near the checkout counter. To estimate the expense involved for a city government, Minneapolis paid one staff member for 20 hours/week of work, and contributed $400 per store for initial signage and display costs.
3. Accepting SNAP and WIC federal food assistance dollars
Given that low-income populations are the most likely to be unable to access and afford fresh produce, a successful healthy corner store policy should focus on addressing the needs of these consumers. The implementing city agency should assist corner stores in applying for authorization from USDA to accept SNAP benefits (or food stamps). To be able to accept WIC (federal food assistance for Women, Infants and Children), a store must carry fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and other healthy foods (requirements vary by state). The implementing agency should help stores to start offering these foods and to become WIC-certified. In California alone, WIC participants receive $1.1 billion every year to spend at food retailers. This has the potential to lead to a large increase in sales for healthy corner stores.
4. Purchasing from local small-scale growers
Another challenge to corner stores carrying fresh produce is that they often cannot purchase enough produce to qualify for wholesale prices from distributors. Corner stores’ relatively small purchasing needs make them ideal customers for local, small-scale farms, which often have trouble selling to large retail outlets because they do not grow enough to meet their needs. Not only does buying locally benefit the store owner, who can offer fresher food that has a longer shelf life and better taste, but it also further strengthens the local economy by increasing profits for local farms. These farmers in turn invest in labor and equipment from other local retailers, keeping the money within the community. Local food advocates and the implementing agency could also consider developing a food hub as seen in St. Louis, where locally-grown food is aggregated and sold to corner stores and other food retailers at whole sale prices.
Depending on the region of the country, one challenge to purchasing locally can be the limited growing season. The implementing agency should be ready to assist corner stores with finding alternate distributors to ensure consistency of offerings when locally grown food is not in season.
5. Creative sourcing and distributing
In addition to purchasing locally, store owners can think creatively about sourcing low-cost healthy foods and increasing their profits. Farms are often willing to let “gleaning” organizations harvest the extra produce off of their fields after they have done the initial harvest for their primary buyers. This produce is often perfectly good, with perhaps slight bruises or abnormal shapes, and can be sold at a discounted price. Similarly, unsold food at the end of farmers markets is often thrown into the compost pile back at the farm, even though it’s perfectly good to eat. These farmers might be happy to sell to corner stores at a reduced price. While the food might not look perfect enough to sell in its original form, crooked carrots and cucumbers can be sliced into smaller pieces, and apples can be peeled and sliced. This ready-to-eat food can even be sold at a slightly higher price than in its whole form. Profit margins can be more than 100 percent for prepared healthy foods like sliced fruit or salads. This processing can be done by the farmers, or by a middle-man distributor for a cost.
Another option is that store owners can support the sale of healthy foods without being responsible for storing them. In Eugene, Oregon, one corner store chain in low-income neighborhoods hosts a farm stand outside their stores during the summer. Another option is for the corner store to act as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) pick-up location. This increases foot traffic in the store, likely leading to increased purchasing, without the store owner taking responsibility for storing the produce.
Healthy corner store policies can significantly increase access to healthy foods in communities that currently lack access to this basic need. Yet these policies will only be effective to the extent that policy makers invest sufficient resources and task the implementing agency with technical and financial assistance to ensure that small businesses reap the benefits rather than the burdens of these requirements. Increasing access to healthy fresh foods for low-income communities is essential for improving the country we live in, and should be thoughtfully implemented to strengthen and empower the entire community.
*This piece was originally published on the policy blog Bridge 50.
The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Center for Health Law & Policy Innovation or Harvard Law School. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.