Many of us take for granted the ability to make trips to a full size grocery store. For 23.5 million Americans, accessing a full-size supermarket is a challenge. In some areas, small corner stores are often the only source of food for underserved communities. They act as the main source of groceries, which can be problematic, considering many corner stores stock mainly processed foods that are high in calories, fat, and salt.

Areas that lack convenient, affordable access to traditional grocery stores are often called “Food deserts,” defined by the USDA as low-income, low-access communities with a poverty rate of 20+ percent and at least 500 people who are more than a mile away from a large grocery store in urban areas (or more than 10 miles away in rural areas). Impoverished residents living far from a grocery store are at a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese.

The National Consumers League (NCL) has advocated for strong food policies since its founding in 1899. Pursuing improved food opportunities for consumers around the nation and in Washington, DC, where NCL is headquartered, is a top priority as food policy is a cornerstone of NCL’s mission to promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers. The District of Columbia’s City Council passed the FEED DC Act in 2010 in an effort to improve access to healthy food in low-income neighborhoods. The FEED DC Act awards grants to grocery store projects, such as the “Healthy Corners” program run by D.C. Central Kitchen.

Washington, DC food deserts are most commonly located in wards (the formal term for political sections here in the nation’s capital) 5, 7, and 8. Even in areas of the District that are not food deserts, corner stores serve as convenient neighborhood hubs where residents stop in to make quick, small purchases for snacks or meals. Corner stores offering healthier options could mean a major step in combating obesity among individuals living in lower income neighborhoods.

DC corner stores: How do they measure up?

This summer, the National Consumers League conducted a survey of corner stores in wards 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the District of Columbia. Twenty corner stores throughout the district were included in the survey, primarily near the Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, U-Street, Columbia Heights, and Petworth neighborhoods. The stores surveyed ranged in the goods that they sold from those that offered alcohol and food, to others that focused mainly on food, and some that were simply convenience stores offering a variety of products.

Researchers were pleased to find that every corner store surveyed had some form of fresh produce available. Bananas were by far the most common, with apples and oranges taking a close second and third. It is likely bananas were so commonplace because they cost around $0.60 per pound versus pricier fruits like grapes which cost $2.53 per pound of cherries coming in around $4.50 per pound—not to mention their relatively long shelf life. Fruits that are cheaper, easily portable, require no packaging, and have a long shelf life are the most likely to be sold at corner stores.

Forty percent of stores had more than three different types of produce available, making them good options for consumers in search of healthy choices. There is still plenty of room for improvement. All corner stores should start offering a wider breadth of produce and healthy snacks. Having some fruit in stock is good, but bananas, apples, and oranges alone do not constitute a large enough selection for consumers.

Researchers were also pleased to find that 70 percent of the stores surveyed had produce available either in the front of the store or near the cash register. Putting produce in highly visible places—especially in place of the unhealthy impulse-buys that usually sit closest to cash registers—encourages consumers to choose healthy foods over those processed foods that are high in sugar and fat. Though 70 percent is a good number, advocates would love to see it even higher. Thirty percent of corner stores may appear to have no produce available as it is not visible upon entering the store. Ideally all corner stores would display produce near the front of the shop. Changing where produce is displayed is an easy and inexpensive way to make nutritional foods appeal to consumers.

Healthy Corners Program

In NCL’s survey, researchers encountered one corner store that was affiliated with a program called “Healthy Corners” run by D.C. Central Kitchen. This program, which builds on the Healthy Corner Store Program run by D.C. Hunger Solutions, distributes healthy foods to corner stores in neighborhoods that lack grocery stores or other means of getting healthy food. It provides a small stipend to store owners and routinely delivers produce and other healthy snacks. Through the program, storeowners can buy produce at wholesale prices and in smaller quantities than they would be able to get through conventional distributors. They are then able to sell produce at below-market prices, making it an even more appealing option for customers.

The role of programs like this in bettering the health of low-income communities is vital. As of 2013, 33 stores participated in Healthy Corners, grossing more than $40,000 in annual sales. The produce provided to corner stores through Healthy Corners is not going uneaten; 7,500+ health conscious snacks are served to DC residents each month.

Researchers didn’t survey wards 5,7, and 8—where they would have been even more likely to find stores participating in the Healthy Corners program, because those wards are home to food deserts. The demonstrated success of these programs, where they are put in use, begs for expansion, starting with communities most in need and ultimately branching out across the city.

Update:  Since this article was posted DC Central Kitchen announced that it expanded its Healthy Corners program from 32 to 62 corner stores, nearly doubling outreach to neighborhoods that need healthy options most.  A grant from the DC Department of Small and Local Business Development made this possible.  

Looking Forward

When it comes to providing produce access to low-income residents of the district, there is always room for improvement. The FEED DC Act, which helps fund the aforementioned Healthy Corners Program, also aims to encourage green technology in food stores and create jobs in areas of high unemployment. Additionally, the Cottage Food Act of 2013 lifts health department license requirements that very small business owners, bringing in less than $25,000 in revenue annually and likely just starting out, would typically need to abide by.  Both of these laws serve low-income communities by supporting businesses’ ability to provide healthier foods in unique ways. A continued push for legislation that eases restrictions on small business owners and aids in their distribution of healthy choices is necessary to ensure progress continues in the most underserved communities.

Pursuing new ideas to provide access to healthy foods is also vital. Mobile produce vans are increasingly popular. New York City has employed them to bring low-cost produce to some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city. Likewise, the District has a “Mobile Market” provided by Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture. Similar to many of today’s farmers markets, the Mobile Market accepts and even encourages using SNAP/EBT benefits to purchase produce. The “Bonus Bucks” program doubles the purchasing power of food assistance benefits.

Efforts such as these aren’t going unnoticed. They serve as a vital resource for many District residents. Continued support and expansion of existing programs in conjunction with new efforts are a major step toward turning around poor health consequences in low-income areas. The first step in getting DC residents to eat healthier is giving them a choice.