I live in a “food desert.”
There are no grocery stores in my town. I drive to
another city to do my grocery shopping, which is a real inconvenience
if I’m short just one tomato for a recipe. If I didn’t
own a car, or had young children to haul, forget it—I’d
shop at convenience stores when I was hungry for whatever
was available like many of my neighbors.
Our neighborhood drugstores, convenience stores and liquor
stores have made it relatively easy to stay put. They accept
food stamps for anything loosely considered “food.”
So, residents are encouraged to spend government-issued grocery
dollars on Cheetos rather than drive 15 minutes to spend them
on carrots. Spending grocery dollars on snack food contributes
to rampant diet-related health problems. Even though a healthier
diet would reduce disease, without a nearby grocery many are
unable to change their eating and buying habits, even though
they might want to.
Hungry for change
I work for the NorthWest Initiative, a nonprofit group serving
“food desert” communities. Everyday, I encourage
low-income families to make healthy dietary choices, a big
challenge without a nearby grocery store to provide the healthier
foods I recommend.
For years, introducing a grocery store was our mission. We
envisioned a small, full-service grocery with a complete fresh-fruit-and-vegetable
section. We contacted groceries and met with city officials
but got nowhere. Between the issues the city was facing, other
related red tape and the fact that government operates at
a snail’s pace, we ditched the grocery store idea in
favor of a new mission: work with existing food outlets to
improve nutrition options.
While some of us had been butting our heads against the grocery
store’s brick wall, others at the NorthWest Initiative
had been compiling data on neighborhood demographics and surveying
residents to determine where they shopped for food. They reported
that more than one-quarter of the 16,000 people in our urban
core neighborhood lived at or below the poverty line and that
32 percent of the residents purchased some or all of their
groceries from places other than grocery stores.
We examined the existing food outlets and chose to partner
with a Quality Dairy (QD) store, part of a locally owned convenience
store chain. The store serves as a main grocery outlet for
many local residents. It is located in an underserved community,
and about half the sales are EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer,
or “food stamps”) transactions.
We went to the store manager armed with a presentation detailing
the survey information (the means by which the store could
promote fresh produce), a checklist of suggested actions to
be carried out in partnership by the store and the NorthWest
Initiative, and sample press releases to invite patrons to
the store and to tell the story of QD’s support for
the community. We discussed the fact that 32 percent of residents
shopped for at least some groceries at local convenience stores
and that the store had much to gain by adding the grocery
items missing from other convenience stores. The manager agreed.
Just two days after that initial meeting, QD began offering
20 varieties of fruits and vegetables to its customers. The
manager had ordered them through the chain’s wholesaler,
which offered a nice variety in addition to the bananas, lemons,
and limes the store was already carrying.
Now that we had the brand-new produce shelves stocked, it
was time to promote the new offerings to our neighbors. We
dropped off more than 300 fliers at homes, churches, community
centers and bus stops. We put full-color signs on the doors
and in the windows of the store. We sent press releases to
newspapers and television stations, and made yard signs reading
“Quality Dairy Now Selling Fruits and Vegetables!”
The yard signs were displayed up and down the roads leading
to the store (a neighbor informed us that their debut even
Next, we hosted a “Food and Fun Fair” in QD’s
parking lot. Michigan State University Extension co-hosted
the event and served samples of dishes made with the offered
fruits and vegetables. MSU Extension also offered information
on stretching food dollars and preparing healthy meals on
a budget. Meanwhile, the NorthWest Initiative helped residents
fill out food-stamp applications and gave away free recipe
cards showing easy ways to prepare produce. Kids played nutrition-based
games and won prizes, and we gave away countless spatulas,
fruit-and-vegetable refrigerator magnets, mixing bowls and
more. Not only did the event draw resident and media attention
to QD’s produce, it also got neighbors talking about
food and to each other.
The neighbors eat their veggies
We surveyed customers to determine the success of the program.
Fifty fruit-and-vegetable customers answered a short survey
in exchange for a free fruit-and-vegetable cookbook. Forty-seven
customers reported purchasing more fruits and vegetables than
before QD started carrying produce. Twenty-four respondents
indicated they were using the free recipe cards provided at
the produce display.
Even one of my more mobile neighbors was now shopping at
QD. While it did not replace the grocery store, the local
QD was an emergency destination when she needed fresh tomatoes,
peppers and cucumbers.
In April, a local Amish farmer joined our partnership and
agreed to deliver produce weekly. He would be paid with a
check at the time of each delivery, and the store would supplement
the local produce through the wholesaler. After a new round
of advertising, local produce sales were strong.
The store doesn’t make much money on the new produce
offerings, but it doesn’t lose any either. The manager
marks the price up by much less than the industry standard.
She wants to help people eat better and not take advantage
of the lack of competition for pure economic gain. While the
produce is not very financially profitable, it still improves
the store’s image. Some people had looked at the store
negatively, blaming it for prostitutes, drug dealers and a
host of other rough characters who frequent its parking lot.
Fortunately, the inclusion of produce is changing this negative
image. The store manager and her supervisor agree that the
positive media attention and improved community image make
selling produce worthwhile, despite the marginal profit.
Jumping on the fresh-food bandwagon
Now other QD stores are taking on the program. The supervisor
of the initial store met with the managers from his other
stores and encouraged them to follow suit. So far, three have
committed to the program. The retail operations manager for
the entire QD chain is scheduling meetings with his colleagues
and a local farmer to expand the local-produce selection to
even more stores.
And other convenience-store chains have witnessed QD’s
success. A liquor store a few blocks down is working to “out
fresh” (their words) QD. It began selling vegetables
and plans to revamp the store, devoting a freezer case to
frozen vegetables and meats. A beauty supply store across
the street from the liquor store sold watermelons on its lawn,
and the owner plans to sell more fruits and vegetables next
summer. Just yesterday the discount store a couple lots down
from the beauty supply store decided it would like to add
groceries to its shelves.
While the project has been a huge success for the store and
the community, challenges remain. The manager and supervisor
have been eager to carry the fruits and vegetables, but maintaining
fresh produce requires extra work. Staff must make the orders,
calculate the price of individual items that arrive in bulk,
individually price all fruits and vegetables, check every
day to make sure produce isn’t spoiling, throw away
old produce, reorganize the produce shelves regularly, and
now, identify the local produce from the non-local.
The store is working on a more consistent approach in order
to keep strawberries from molding on the shelves, wrinkling
peppers from remaining on display, vegetables from farther
afield from being mistakenly labeled as local and shelves
from being picked bare. Seeing the responsiveness from the
community it is genuinely interested in serving, Quality Dairy
is firmly committed to resolving these issues and is stepping
up staff training in order to do so.
The success in pitching this project was in large part due
to our personal approach. When pitching an idea like this,
a critical component is to evaluate your audience. It may
be best to leave the stiff handshake at home along with your
suit and tie. Be candid and friendly. Work to establish trust
– by shopping at the store and remembering to ask (and
actually wanting to know) about a child’s high-school
graduation or some other event significant to the people who
work there. This will help the store’s staff to tough
it out if things get rough. If QD did not trust me, the manager
might have quit selling local vegetables after she threw away
every single vegetable from that first delivery. The store
certainly wouldn’t have hosted a second event—three
times as large as the first—to promote the inclusion
of local produce.
It’s equally important for you to trust the people
who own, manage and work at the store. Remember, these people
know their clientele better than you do. Several months into
the project, the store was rearranged and the produce section
was moved from the front to the very back. I was worried that
sales would drop, but I trusted the management at QD and my
fears were eventually allayed.
If you plan to bring a similar project to your community,
just do it. We could have spent years and lots of money planning,
researching and printing fancy bound reports to bring food
to our neighborhood, but in the end, a basic survey and logical
argument was all it took to start the program. Trust and a
team committed to its community keep it going, and positive
customer feedback is making it grow. Now if you’ll excuse
me, I heard that QD has locally grown apples this week, and
I’m just aching for some pie.