Louis Groceries: An experiment in selling healthy food

Nonprofit corner store deploys educational tactic to fix food deserts

January 15, 2013

Louis Groceries is a new and clean corner store that almost has the white starkness of a hospital room, even while color from the food explodes on the shelves. It’s stocked with fresh spinach, celery, mushrooms, limes and pears. And customers speak glowingly about the store’s Amish chicken or share recipes inside.

Louis Groceries serves residents in Chicago's Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. For many shoppers, a place with fresh food and great chicken might not seem like a big deal, but in this immediate area, fresh food options are limited. Louis Groceries is a nonprofit store with the mission to get people to eat better.

Shopper Kevin Foston visits daily now, having discovered it on his way to the gas station in the next block that also sells food. The unhealthy kind.

“I hate to say this but yeah, I was going to buy some junk food. Don’t print that. Just me saying that let’s you know the real value of this place. Most of the people in this community - that’s what we had to look forward to,” Foston, a graphic designer, said.

 

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Near the store's cash register is what staff call the “healthy row,” with items like trail mix and salt-free or sugar-free snacks. Louis Groceries wants to improve what people in the neighborhood eat, so yes, there’s fruit, nuts and apple chips, but they compete with processed junk food and rainbow-colored sugary drinks, too.

“Frito-Lay and Coca-Cola I would say are our top sellers," said Terri Zhu, the store program director/manager. "But people have been buying produce. I would say grapes and bananas.” She said there’s no disconnect between the healthy mission of offering fresh food and good meat alongside snack foods.

“The idea is for people to make a choice. So we’re not going to take away your Frito-Lay from you,” Zhu said.

Since Louis Groceries is non-profit, it can afford to experiment and make risky financial choices, like not selling much fresh food at first. The idea is to solve a problem that other food advocates encountered.

They learned that plopping crisp vegetables and ripe fruit in communities doesn’t mean customers will automatically purchase them if those items haven’t been in their diets. So, Louis Groceries fills in the gap with education, to build demand for the healthy stuff over the long haul. Hence, it offers healthy cooking demonstrations and nutrition classes on site.

“A lot of activity around food deserts have been very supply focused, like we need to put supermarkets in these areas,” Zhu said.

Zhu said the idea is to get people to eat healthier — not just give them access. Louis Groceries will continue to sell produce even if sales are slow. Policy researchers will analyze sales data. Experts aren’t looking to police but learn why people make certain choices and see if there’s room for improvement. And to create a corner store model that can be replicated in underserved communities.

Nonprofit grocers are trending across the country. Portland, Ore. opened one a year and a half ago. One is scheduled to open this spring in suburban Philadelphia.

Researcher Mari Gallagher said there has been progress in gnawing away at food deserts. Farmers markets, urban agriculture and new stores have made a dent, but there are still about 350,000 people who live in food deserts in Chicago.

“These nonprofits targeting those underserved communities could be a game changer in terms of how those local neighborhood markets are able to reconstitute to some degree and have more market activity,” Gallagher said.

That could attract more mainstream grocers, which, in turn would give competition and choice. Kind of like choosing between that red apple and red flaming hot Cheetos.