Corner stores to become oases in food deserts?

Local governments, community groups hope to transform shops into healthy havens.

February 23, 2012

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In food deserts, large grocery stores are scarce. But these same communities have plenty of corner stores. That’s usually seen as a problem because corner stores often stock more junk food than fresh produce. There are new public health programs underway in several Chicago neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs. The idea is to turn corner stores into healthy assets.

New fresh produce at La Alegria, a corner store in Cicero, Ill. (WBEZ/Natalie MoDanny Block is a professor at Chicago State University. He researches food deserts, and he has a map that shows areas that have few grocery stores but lots of independent corner stores.

MOORE: How well have these corner stores been filling the gap?

BLOCK: Probably not very well.

Block says customers have a catalogue of complaints with corner stores: overpricing, too much snack food, and uncleanliness. There’s a local food justice movement that’s working on food access issues and it’s trying different strategies.

One tactic is to get chain grocers to open in food deserts. Another is to clear hurdles for urban agriculture. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s working on those two.  But there’s another strategy: transforming corner stores from holes in the wall to healthy havens.

The Chicago and Cook County public health departments and private agencies are involved. Corner store owners are getting hundreds of dollars in seed money and refrigeration equipment.

Again, Danny Block:

BLOCK: I am all in favor of diversifying. I am not against bringing in the chain stores. The food desert issue is about community disinvestment in general. It’s about which communities have received retail investment and which communities haven’t. If you really want to revitalize a community, you just can’t do it with one store. You have to have a developed economy that gives people a variety of different choices.

Payless is a corner store near 69th and Ashland in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood. It’s crammed with artificially flavored drinks, potato chips and junk food, but Payless is changing. It’s enrolled in the Healthy Places campaign, so now it’s got a display case that literally stands out like an oasis in a food desert. Fresh oranges, shiny apples, ripe bananas, plums and pears — all at discount prices.

A local community group called Inner City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN, is helping Payless with its fresh transition. Shamar Hemphill is with the group and shows me a refrigerator in the back that holds tomatoes, carrots and cabbage. Hemphill says each week community leaders check to ensure the produce is crisp.

HEMPHILL: It made sense around lifting and elevating the issue of food deserts. The corner store is really the probably most essential place in the most hard hit communities across the city of Chicago.

There’s a lot at stake in making store options healthier. Englewood residents have higher rates of diabetes and heart disease, and these convenience stores can’t help much. Hemphill says his community group wants more corner stores to participate – but it’s a paradigm shift.

HEMPHILL: It’s not as easy with store owners wanting to shift their store around with their bread and butter products. You know what I’m saying? To begin to put in products that they may make little profit at first.

I visited Payless two years ago — for some other reporting on food issues. Back then store owner Falah Farhoudeh said he couldn’t sell fresh food because he wasn’t sure people would buy it. He’s changed his tune.

FARHOUDEH: I do make money. Saturday and Sunday I sell 50 bags.

Mary Newsome is a long tim customer. She’s 84 years old, has trouble breathing and she’s prone to seizures. She’s long asked the owner to stock fruit.

NEWSOME: I asked since I’ve been coming here. I didn’t see any. My nurse wants me to have bananas. She want me to have apples, oranges.

Newsome lives just a block away from Payless, and that’s a notable detail. Experts say convenience is key when it comes to improving people’s access to healthy food.

These changes aren’t happening just in Chicago. Cook County and some non-profits are helping at some suburban stores, like Cicero’s La Alegria. But there’s one issue: money. La Alegria is out of kiwi on this weekday, but it’s still got tomatillos, lemons, and avocados.

Owner Gloria Valle shows me around. She says she's not worried about the grant running out. Valle says people are now hungry for these items and she’ll keep stocking her shelves with fresh fruit.