Access to fresh fruit and vegetables is one of the key limiting factors preventing people from choosing a more healthy diet. If you can’t get fresh produce in your neighborhood store, it is really hard to incorporate it into your meals. Using funding from the Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health and the Seattle Office of Economic Development have come up with an innovative approach to getting fresh produce into corner stores – and they are succeeding in making community change happen.
For most of us, getting fresh produce is not a problem, since we shop at large stores that routinely carry fruits and vegetables. But there are neighborhoods where people don’t have access to large grocery stores, and where most people shop at small corner stores where produce is not a well-stocked item. The people who lack access to fresh food tend to be lower income, and often do not have access to cars, making travel out of their neighborhood challenging even if they want to shop elsewhere.
Around the country, a lot of energy has been put into bringing grocery stores to such neighborhoods. But that only works if the grocery stores can sell enough to justify the store’s location, and quite often they have already done that analysis and have no interest in opening a store in a low income community with a small customer base.
So city staff have been working to understand why small stores do not carry produce and to help overcome the barriers to doing so. Here’s some of what they have found:
- Displaying and marketing fresh produce makes a huge difference. In one store, fresh food was relegated to a corner, and the owner was selling only $50/week, while much produce was rotting on the shelves and being discarded. With a better display, produce began ‘flying off the shelves’, and store sales increased to $200/week. The owner made more money and people got better food.
- Other stores have been helped to get refrigeration, which makes them more able to carry produce without major losses to spoilage.
- Another technique is to assist store owners in seeing fresh produce as a way to get people to shop at their stores more often – produce can be a loss leader that is made up for when people buy other products.
- “Shelf talkers” – display signs that attract customers to particular items, are not a familiar technique for many corner stores, but can make a huge difference. Staff has also encouraged store owners to remove ‘free’ such signs provided by the vendors of unhealthy foods.
- Stores serving immigrant communities find that their customers are not familiar or interested in the fresh produce that most wholesalers offer – they are looking for the produce that they are used to and know how to use in their cooking. The program helps these stores connect with wholesalers who are able to supply culturally appropriate produce. The quality of the relationship with the vendor is a key to successful transactions, and bridging cultural gaps can be an important tool in making this relationship work.
- The relationship between wholesalers and retailers in the American economy is traditionally built around the provision of credit, but many other traditions rely on ‘cash and carry’. Credit systems are particularly problematic in the Islamic tradition, where sharia law places restrictions on the use of credit and the payment of interest. There are ways to structure the credit relationship that is compatible with sharia principles, but that requires discussion and communication, and that is again something that our staff can facilitate.
It’s not easy to get healthy food to all of our communities. The pathways are complex, and it all depends on understanding how communities and businesses work, and on bringing people together to work through the obstacles. The Healthy Corner Store program is an innovative and creative approach that is working. For more information, visit http://www.seattle.gov/economicdevelopment/business_assist.htm#HFH or healthyfoodshere.com.