Delivering on a quality promise
Mainstream convenience store brings fresh, local
food to Lansing, MI neighborhood.

By Katie Olender

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.

The Proposal

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 slowed traffic!).

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.

Getting started

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.