By Emily Freeman
You probably don’t think of your neighborhood corner store as the place to go for fresh fruits and vegetables. But as of August, it might be worth a second look.
As a result of the new improved nutrition guidelines for Minnesota’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program (see Notables page 4 for information on the WIC changes), all stores that accept the WIC vouchers will be required to adhere to a new minimum stocking requirement for fresh produce. For stores located in counties with a population of 250,000 or more—currently Anoka, Dakota, Hennepin, and Ramsey Counties—this means carrying at least seven varieties of produce, two of which must be bananas and carrots (stores in other counties need five varieties). While the new WIC stocking requirements aren’t specifically targeted at corner stores, they’re the ones for whom implementation means the biggest change from the status quo. And as corner stores often serve as the only source of groceries in the so-called “food deserts” of low-income neighborhoods, their new inventory stands to have the most impact.
In the past, corner stores in Minnesota had no easy way to tap into a wholesale produce distribution system. Owners most often had to buy their produce inventory from retail sources like supermarkets or buying clubs, then mark up the price to account for their labor. This created a price-barrier for many shoppers who couldn’t afford the twice-marked-up products. Consequently, the inventory didn’t move, got worse-looking by the day, and often had to be thrown out. “The system wasn’t working well for shoppers or for many corner stores,” says JoAnne Berkenkamp of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
Berkenkamp is the head of IATP’s Local Foods Program, and worked closely with the Minnesota Department of Health to create the healthy corner store initiative, helping corner stores to easily access affordable, fresh produce without changing their current ordering or distribution system. IATP partnered with H. Brooks & Co., a local wholesale produce distributor willing to sell small quantities to the so-called “broadline distributors” who provide corner stores with their existing inventory of refrigerated and shelf-stable products. This innovative collaboration allows corner stores to tap into a global produce market, as well as a large local inventory during the growing season. The diversity of options means that corner stores can easily tailor their inventory to reflect the needs of their clientele’s particular food interests and traditions. “It’s really about connecting the dots,” says Berkenkamp. “And about leveraging the existing distribution system to give stores access to products that they haven’t had before.”
One of the biggest challenges for the corner stores will be getting out the word about their new fresh inventory, not just in terms of its availability, but why it matters. Too often a lack of access to healthy food coexists with a lack of knowledge about the same, and in many families it’s the lack of basic information about nutrition that leads to generations of obesity, disease, and general malnutrition. To address these concerns, the MN Department of Health and IATP have developed extensive marketing materials to orient customers to the fruits and vegetables now available in their neighborhoods. Additional marketing and publicity efforts are in the works at Catalyst (bethecatalyst.org), a nonprofit youth empowerment and advocacy group based in South Minneapolis.
Another challenge will be keeping the inventory fresh and appealing-looking, so there may be somewhat of a learning curve for clerks to learn how to maintain the different items. But every potential challenge goes hand-in-hand with a strategy for solution. It just takes time. Programs of this type have been implemented in urban areas across the country, and in many cases have proven quite successful. Organizations like the Healthy Corner Store Network (healthycornerstores.org) provide a wealth of resources and information for communities looking to start this kind of program, or to strengthen a program that’s just getting on its feet.
But don’t just leave it up to the nonprofits and policy-makers. If you like the idea of fresh fruits and vegetables in your neighborhood, there’s an easy way to make your voice heard: buy something. Pick up an onion, some bananas, or a couple of oranges. Assist the store owners in making what might be a slow and challenging transition. Help them move their inventory and let them know how much you appreciate the availability of fresh produce within walking distance.
Can WIC Save Neighborhoods?
My neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis is full of corner stores both old and new. The older ones are mostly residences now, some with a business or studio on the ground floor where dry goods and produce were once sold. Originally, these stores catered to the immigrant communities who lived in the area—mostly Eastern European—and sold staples to the wives whose husbands toiled long hours on the railroad or at the mill. The corner stores were hubs of neighborhood activity, providing an invaluable service to families, in some cases extending credit when times were particularly hard.
Flash forward half a century and corner stores have become an entirely different beast. Rather than being perceived as a valuable and positive element of the community, they’re viewed by many as price-gouging purveyors of junk food, a source of litter on neighborhood lawns, and magnets for illegal activities.
Is it possible that fresh fruits and vegetables could turn this around? Could a WIC-directed mandate of increased produce inventory wind up having unintentionally positive benefits for the whole neighborhood? While the healthy corner stores program originated at the public assistance level, WIC recipients aren’t the only ones who’ll benefit from the expanded produce options. The availability of fresh food items within walking distance is a boon to anyone who’s ever made the eleventh hour discovery that the only onion in the house has gone soft, or anyone who needed a piece of fruit to turn Sunday morning pancakes into something special, or simply had a late-night hankering for a banana.
It’s perhaps overly optimistic, but nonetheless fun, to imagine that the new improved WIC guidelines will be the first step in returning corner stores to the kind of solid and dependable institutions that they once were, raising their estimation in the eyes of the neighborhood, creating a space where people interact and talk and perform those basic functions which, when performed often enough, create community.