Why Convenience Stores Don’t Sell Better Food

Corner stores get help to offer healthier options in a move to improve the health of low-income communities.

Alexia Fernández Campbell
Olga Khazan, The Atlantic
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OLGA KHAZAN, The Atlantic
July 20, 2015, 12:09 p.m.

At a small corner store in North­east Wash­ing­ton, Nola Liu, a com­munity-out­reach of­ficer with the D.C. Cent­ral Kit­chen, whirled around a deli case with a clip­board in hand, passing out a re­cipe for cin­na­mon pear crisps to any­one who would take it.

She thrust a card at a man in a blue knit hat who was on his way out.

“Are you gonna make it for me?” he asked.

“No, you have to make it your­self,” she re­spon­ded.

“I’m not much of a baker,” he said, and walked out.

Fresh pears are a re­l­at­ively new ar­rival at this store, which is called Thomas & Sons. Just a few months ago, the ex­tent of its pro­duce se­lec­tion was a small re­fri­ger­ated case hold­ing a few for­lorn fruits and onions, all go­ing at a premi­um. The own­er, Jae Chung, was re­luct­ant to stock things like to­ma­toes, which would of­ten go bad while they lingered on the shelves.

Now, a brand-new re­fri­ger­ated ve­get­able case sits front and cen­ter amid all the beer and bul­let­proof glass. (“I have some un­ruly cus­tom­ers,” Chung ex­plains.) In­side are apples, lem­ons, limes, and grapes pack­aged neatly in plastic con­tain­ers. Ad­di­tion­al bas­kets hold pota­toes and ba­na­nas. The case was provided by the D.C. Cent­ral Kit­chen as part of its Healthy Corners pro­gram, which seeks to ex­pand the fruit and ve­get­able of­fer­ings in corner stores across the Dis­trict.

Not only did the non­profit give Chung the fridge for free, it will also re­place any items that go bad at no ex­tra cost. They sell the greens to him for cheap, too. Chung says that be­fore, he had to buy his fresh pro­duce stock at Costco and pick it up him­self. After he ad­ded in his markup, a to­mato at Thomas & Sons would sell for about $2.50. Now, it’s more like $1 to $1.50 — on par with what someone might pay for a bag of chips or pack­age of donuts. (At Wal­mart, a pack of four to­ma­toes goes for $2.48, or about 60 cents per to­mato.)

Tiny, in­de­pend­ent corner stores — the kind that have wall-to-wall bever­age cases, rows of brightly-pack­aged junk food, and just one or two cash re­gisters — are crammed in­to every nook of the city.

Nearly every city has neigh­bor­hoods that suf­fer from a lack of ac­cess to cheap, easy, and health­ful op­tions, and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. is no ex­cep­tion. Tiny, in­de­pend­ent corner stores — the kind that have wall-to-wall bever­age cases, rows of brightly-pack­aged junk food, and just one or two cash re­gisters — are crammed in­to every nook of the city. They’re an es­sen­tial part of the food land­scape, provid­ing everything from make-do lunch fare for con­struc­tion work­ers to emer­gency beer for hip­sters on their way to house parties. Ac­cord­ing to the D.C. Cent­ral Kit­chen’s cal­cu­la­tions, 88 per­cent of food re­tail­ers in the Dis­trict sell mostly junk food or pro­cessed food. Two hun­dred thou­sand of the Dis­trict’s res­id­ents live in an area where the closest gro­cery store is three times fur­ther away than the closest fast-food or con­veni­ence store.

One solu­tion is to lure more large gro­cery stores to these so-called “food deserts.” But it’s of­ten much easi­er, some ad­voc­ates ar­gue, to simply get the ubi­quit­ous corner stores to start selling health­i­er food.

Size is the main reas­on most Amer­ic­an corner and con­veni­ence stores don’t stock very many fruits and ve­get­ables. Many food dis­trib­ut­ors re­quire a min­im­um or­der — say 250 apples — for a de­liv­ery. That’s easy for places like Safe­way or Gi­ant, but it’s harder for small shops that sell maybe two dozen apples each week. Corner-store own­ers who do opt to sell pro­duce end up buy­ing it at prices sim­il­ar to those that reg­u­lar con­sumers pay. On top of that, pro­duce re­quires re­fri­ger­a­tion, which adds to the cost for store own­ers. And un­like Chee­tos or Or­eos, ve­get­ables rot.

The Healthy Corners pro­gram has lowered most of these hurdles. The D.C. Cent­ral Kit­chen already owned a fleet of trucks that it used for food de­liv­er­ies to home­less shel­ters and trans­ition­al homes. In 2011, the or­gan­iz­a­tion real­ized it could use the same drivers to bring pro­duce to loc­al corner shops. Be­cause it serves many dif­fer­ent types of fa­cil­it­ies, the Kit­chen has sub­stan­tial buy­ing power: It’s more akin to a large res­taur­ant than a tiny re­tail­er. That, com­bined with its strategy of buy­ing from loc­al farms and seek­ing phil­an­throp­ic grants, helps drive down prices.

“We buy product that’s aes­thet­ic­ally or geo­met­ric­ally chal­lenged,” says the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s chief ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer, Mike Curtin. Some of it is pro­duce that’s “the wrong shape or size to fit in the right box to fit in the right truck to fit in bins in the gro­cery store that are or­gan­ized by size.” But it’s still per­fectly good — and corner-store own­ers were happy to have it.

The Healthy Corners pro­gram tar­gets areas where there is not a full-ser­vice gro­cery store with­in a quarter-mile. In ad­di­tion to pro­mot­ing fruit and ve­g­gie re­cipes in the stores, D.C. Cent­ral Kit­chen staffers have also held cook­ing demon­stra­tions and doled out free samples. It’s not enough, store own­ers told me, to simply in­stall a pro­duce fridge and ex­pect the com­munity to flock.

There are now 67 such Healthy Corners in D.C., most of which are in lower-in­come neigh­bor­hoods. Ac­cord­ing to the non­profit’s own num­bers, the corner stores in the pro­gram sold more than 140,000 pieces of pro­duce with­in the past 10 months, up from about 17,000 in the sev­en-month peri­od between Sept. 2011 and April 2012.

The or­gan­iz­a­tion says it wants to help grow these types of pro­grams in oth­er cit­ies. It re­cently con­sul­ted on a sim­il­ar pro­ject in Rochester, New York. Sep­ar­ate ini­ti­at­ives fo­cus­ing on corner-stores have sprouted up in Chica­go, Man­hat­tan, and Den­ver.

* * *

The idea that food deserts, or even in­suf­fi­cient pro­duce in­take, are a cause of obesity has come un­der fire re­cently. One study in Health Af­fairs last year found that when a new gro­cery store opened up in a food desert in Phil­adelphia, neither loc­als’ weight nor their di­ets changed. Ro­land Sturm, an eco­nom­ist with the RAND Cor­por­a­tion, wrote a pa­per (which I covered when it came out) about how people of all in­comes now eat about 30 pounds more ve­get­ables and fruit an­nu­ally than they did in 1970. Obesity rates have worsened all the while. People still rely on corner shops primar­ily for house­hold es­sen­tials, like toi­let pa­per, or for a filling meal they can eat on the run. Chung says that oc­ca­sion­ally par­ents thank him for provid­ing fruit as an after-school snack op­tion. Still, “cus­tom­ers’ be­ha­vi­or hasn’t really changed at this point,” he says.

At Thomas & Sons, one man plopped a 12-pack of Yuengling on the counter and an­nounced to the cash­ier, “I ain’t work­ing today, so I’m go­ing to drink.” At Wheel­er Mar­ket, an­oth­er Healthy Corners store, some cus­tom­ers eyed the fridge full of fruit be­fore grabbing a pack­age of donuts.

“This is not go­ing to end obesity, or dia­betes. It’s na­ive to think that’s the case,” Curtin says. “People will avail them­selves of this food, but are they still go­ing to eat junk food? Sure.”

* * *

But per­haps re­du­cing obesity shouldn’t be the goal, or at least not an im­me­di­ate one. Oth­er than weight loss, there are plenty of ad­vant­ages of eat­ing well, like pre­vent­ing some forms of can­cer. And even pro­duce-heavy, or­gan­ic gro­cery stores still sell brownies. (Curtin points out that no one would say, “Oh, we shouldn’t open up a Whole Foods in McLean [a wealthy D.C. sub­urb], be­cause people are still go­ing to buy chips.”)

The Healthy Corners do seem to re­semble a European style of gro­cery shop­ping that some pub­lic-health ad­voc­ates ex­toll. Rather than pack up the fam­ily and head to Kroger every Sat­urday, re­turn­ing with a trunk full of Teddy Gra­hams and as­sor­ted meats, many Europeans buy their pro­duce on the way home from work from the dozens of small green-gro­cers that dot their street corners. These in­de­pend­ent mer­chants — many of them re­cent im­mig­rants — wedge their stores in­to the bot­tom floors of lar­ger build­ings, their mel­ons and squashes stacked neatly in blue bins on the side­walk.

Jaap Seidell, an obesity ex­pert at Vrije Uni­versiteit Am­s­ter­dam, said these small ve­get­able shops, which have pro­lif­er­ated across both large and small towns in Europe, of­fer a great deal of vari­ety at prices that are even lower than those of gro­cery stores. They don’t seem to run in to the same dis­tri­bu­tion and cost is­sues that their Amer­ic­an coun­ter­parts struggle with. “It’s in sea­son, they don’t have to store it for a long time, they don’t have to cool it, and there’s a lot of de­mand for it,” Seidell says. “There’s a lot less cost and waste in­volved.”

Of course, the Dutch way of life makes on-the-fly ve­g­gie shop­ping easi­er. Big gro­cery-store runs aren’t very prac­tic­al any­way, Seidell notes, be­cause al­most every­one bikes or walks to work. Most Dutch wo­men work part-time, so they have ample time to pro­cure and cook fresh food.

In the Neth­er­lands, he says, “It has al­ways been like this: You have butchers, bakers, and the ve­get­able farm­er.”

* * *

Curtin says the suc­cess or fail­ure of Healthy Corners will not hinge on wheth­er “we put ve­get­ables in 67 corner stores and some people are still fat.” It’s about al­low­ing people to de­cide what kind of diet they’d like to have.

Muller Wolde­abzghi, the own­er of Wheel­er Mar­ket in South­east D.C., says he sells maybe 10 to 20 pieces of the Healthy Corners pro­duce each day, ac­count­ing for about 10 per­cent of his sales. He said some cus­tom­ers come to Wheel­er in­stead of the Gi­ant, which is one and a half miles away, be­cause they lack trans­port­a­tion, but oth­ers simply like the shop’s com­munity feel. It’s “a neigh­bor­hood feel­ing,” he says. “They want to sup­port us, we want to sup­port them.”

When I asked one Wheel­er shop­per what he thought of the fridge, he seemed skep­tic­al. “Why would someone go to the corner store for pro­duce?” one man said on his way out. “Why wouldn’t they go to the mar­ket?”

Sev­er­al oth­er cus­tom­ers I spoke with, though, seemed to take a more Dutch view.

“It’s con­veni­ent,” said Laray Winn, who lives in the neigh­bor­hood. “You can make it here in an emer­gency and get whatever you need.”

De­met­ri­us Cain, who lives across the street, says his 6-year-old son is also a fan. Some­times when he’s bored, the boy runs over and comes home with a still-chilled apple. It’s not ex­actly a re­volu­tion, but at least it’s not a Twinkie.

Re­prin­ted with per­mis­sion from The At­lantic. The ori­gin­al story can be found here.

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