A Year Later, “Healthy” Store Pitch Withers
by Thomas MacMillan | Sep 10, 2012 2:46 pm
Posted to: Health, Dwight, Fair Haven, The Hill, West River
One still has a thriving produce section. One has given up on healthful foods entirely. The remaining two offer only a token array of vegetables, which the stores’ owners said they are losing money trying to sell.
A year ago, all four corner stores promised to sell and promote healthful snacks, fruits and vegetables as part of an ambitious new campaign to promote nutritious eating and fight obesity in city neighborhoods.
It turned out to be a harder sell than many predicted.
“We’ve had some mixed results,” said Alycia Santilli, director of community initiatives with Yale’s Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE). Her organization teamed up with the city’s health department last summer to start the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. The program selected the four corner stores to purchase, stock, market, and sell more bananas, apples, vegetables, baked snacks, lowfat milk.
The idea was to promote healthful eating, to combat problems like diabetes and obesity that disproportionately hit city-dwellers without cars who shop at bodegas rather than supermarkets.
Over the course of the summer last year, four stores in different New Haven neighborhoods rolled out the Healthy Corner Store banner. A year later, one of those stores, in Dwight, is under new ownership, with no sign of fresh produce anywhere inside. Another in the Hill stocks a bountiful cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables. The remaining two, in West River and Fair Haven, have only the most minimal of produce sections, and the shopkeepers there said it’s a losing game.
Those two shopkeepers, Alex Abdul and Eli Jaser, said they can’t keep the vegetables fresh given how slowly they’re being purchased. They end up tossing out spoiled produce, and losing money on the deal. Jaser, who owns the George Street Deli in West River, said he has to keep the air conditioning on around the clock to try to keep his produce fresh. Abdul, who owns the Clinton Food Center corner store in Fair Haven, had only some potatoes and onions available in his produce section Friday; he said he’s not going to be able to keep stocking vegetables and fruits without some kind of subsidy to make it worth his while.
Santilli said CARE is aware of the problems pointed out by Abdul and Jaser, and is working on solutions. “The first year was definitely a pilot year,” she said.
She acknowledged that “spoilage has been hard.” It’s difficult to predict customer purchasing habits, and sometimes shopkeepers overstock on vegetables that they then have to throw out. She said CARE is looking into finding a way to equip the stores with refrigerated cases to prolong shelf life. But those can be expensive, since they take a lot of energy, she said. It won’t make financial sense to take on that expense if the market for produce isn’t there.
Another challenge has been finding a distributor to stock the shops with produce at a low price, Santilli said. “It’s hard for [the corner stores] because they’re so small and buying in such small quantities.”
She said she’s meeting with Elm City Market food co-op staff this week to brainstorm about produce-purchasing solutions. She said she plans to see if the neighborhood stores can purchase with the co-op.
As for the subsidies Abdul requested, Santilli said CARE is looking into that as well. “The challenge is once you take the subsidy away, will the consumer pattern still hold?” At a similar program in New York City, subsidies were helping stores sell low-fat milk at a lower price than whole milk, but once the subsidy was taken away, people just went back to buying whole milk, Santilli said.
Santilli said CARE is looking to replace the Dwight corner store that has stopped participating, and to bring a fifth healthy corner store on line in the fall.
Here’s a look at the state of each of the city’s Healthy Corner Stores, a year on:
Little Debbie Takes Over
Adam’s Deli-N-Food, which helped launched the Corner Store Initiative across the street the Troup school in the Dwight neighborhood, no longer exists. The store there is now called Sadaf Market. The man working the counter on Friday said the transition happened about a month ago. He said he knew nothing about the healthy corner store program. The new owner was not available for comment.
The “Our Healthy Corner Store” sign that once hung in the window is now gone. No fresh fruits of vegetables were on sale. But two racks of Little Debbie Snacks were displayed prominently at the front of the store.
“We met with the new owner once, and he didn’t seem that interested in the program,” Santilli said. She said CARE will talk to him again and try to get him on board. “If he’s not interested, we’ll look for another store.”
“I Throw Out A Lot”
Little Debbie products were also stocked at the front of Eli Jaser’s George Street Deli in West River. But just behind them were three baskets for healthier snacks, and down an aisle were several baskets for produce. One of the snack baskets and most of the produce baskets were empty.
Lisa Jaser, who helps her brother in the store, said the market had just run out of pistachios, apples and bananas.
Janice Langston, a 78-year-old woman who described herself as a former Virginia sharecropper, said she enjoys the produce offered at the store. “The carrots are the best,” she said. Langston said she buys corn, tomatoes, and peaches at the store.
Eli, the owner, said the produce doesn’t move quickly out of the store. “They’re not buying much.”
What’s more, since he doesn’t have a refrigerated case for it, he’s forced to leave the air conditioning on 24-hours a day—even when the store’s closed—so that the fruits and vegetables don’t spoil.
Selling vegetables and fruits is a losing proposition, Eli said. He’s not making money on it.
Even after ordering less and less produce, “I throw out a lot,” he said.
But people are buying the healthful snacks, he said. “We do good on pistachios and stuff.”
Pamela Allen came in in a rush and grabbed a bag of chips and an oatmeal cream pie, reading the labels closely to make sure she wouldn’t exceed her daily sodium limit for blood pressure control.
“It needs to be more,” she said of the healthful choices in the store. More corner markets should have fresh fruit available, she said.
Asked about her own purchases, she said, “This is my only snacks for the weekend.” She said she’d already had a nutritious breakfast of eggs, grits, toast, and juice.
In Fair Haven at the Clinton Food Center, the only vegetables on hand were some onions and potatoes. Owner Alex Abdul, like Eli Jaser, said it’s hard to keep fresh produce on hand without refrigeration for it.
Some mostly empty bins near the front of the store carried a small number of healthful snacks. He said he recently ran out of apples and bananas.
“It’s not a money maker,” Abdul (pictured) said. He said he won’t be able to keep stocking healthy foods without some sort of subsidy from the city or state. “We as business people will give up.
Abdul said the healthy corner store has been a step in the right direction, but it will need more work to make it successful, to really make people healthier in his neighborhood. “The organization has to back us,” he said.
At Congress Market in the Hill, a woman was loading up on meat and freezer-pops. No one was shopping in the store’s robust produce section, but manager Tony Edemes said the vegetables and fruits sell well.
“They buy every day,” he said. Edemes said he gets deliveries of fresh produce every two days to keep up with demand.
Santilli said that unlike at the other stores, CARE worked with Congress Market only on marketing its healthful foods, since the store already carried a full range of produce and nutritious snacks.
“It’s a success,” Edemes said of the healthy corner store program.
Tags: Healthy Corner Store Initiative, CARE, Community Alliance for Research and Engagement, Alycia Santilli, Tony Edemes
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I have to say there are going to be a lot of people reading this article are not going to be surprised at CARE’s failure. Once again, a Yale experiment on New Haven did not work. Sending a bunch of students out to corner stores two summers ago to see what was offered in corner stores and working off of that data missed the mark. If a kid walks into a corner store with a dollar, is he going to spend 50-75 cents on an apple or banana or is he going to spend 50 cents on sugar water and 50 cents on chips? Nutrition education rates are high in NH schools, but when you were 13 and wanted a snack knowing the apple was healthy which did you choose? Parents who only have $5 to feed their family for the day are going to go for the most filling options, boxed mac and cheese, white bread, and for things the kids want-like snack cakes. I do believe healthy options should be available, but corner stores cannot afford to purchase inventory with a short shelf life and make very little money off of. Even subsidizing fruits and vegetables will still lead to food waste. I don’t claim to have the answer to the problem, but most who patron corner stores are looking for junk food and it is the mentality of the patrons that needs to be addressed.
I have discovered an amazing way to keep produce fresh. I call it “ice”.
My next invention is an insulated box called a “cooler” that keeps the ice around longer.
Each year, the U.S. government subsidizes the cost of 21 twinkies for each and every man, woman and child. By comparison, each year, our government subsidizes the cost of one half of one apple.
Perhaps the mentality of our government needs to be addressed, not the mentality of patrons.
posted by: streever on September 11, 2012 7:05am
Right on, anonymous.
The last store provides the secret to the success—we really need less corner stores and more bodegas. I think our zoning should be revamped to eliminate uses which do not sell “real” food. If a store doesn’t sell ingredients which can be used to prepare a dish, or gas, it should be zapped.
Really Streever? Eliminate neighborhood convenience stores that don’t pass the real food test? Zap them? No grandfathering? That would represent an enforcement nightmare for the city. I don’t think we want food police running around slapping cease and desist orders on corner stores. “Zapping” non-compliant uses, with our without grandfathering, would likely result in more vacant storefronts, and less convenience for the public. People will just walk farther to get their unhealthy snacks, and be deprived of other good stuff available locally [milk, baby food, etc.].
Hey, I’m liberal but I still believe that folks should be free to sell, and others free to buy, pretty much whatever they want as long as it’s legal. The government shouldn’t be in the business of micromanaging store inventories.
Having said all that, the article shows that simply adding produce bins won’t necessarily work. Congress Market already had a successful produced section before the program, and still does. Although it’s been years since I’ve been in Delmonico’s Italian Market on Townsend, across from Nathan Hale School, I bet they still have plenty of healthy choices, but that doesn’t mean the kids are buying them after school. If the corner stores have apples and bananas, they might sell, but we shouldn’t be surprised at the failure of fresh vegetables on Edgewood and Platt, three blocks from Stop and Shop.
As with many things, timing is everything. Had the reporter gone to these stores today, he would have found bins filled with healthier snack selections. We subsidize the purchase of healthier snacks once per month and just delivered them this week. Also, it sounds like Eli had just run out of the produce he stocks.
The project’s first year was a pilot year. We are currently taking pause to examine successes and challenges to determine how to move forward with this project. We remain committed. We are currently evaluating data from the project to determine how to best move forward.
Not reported here are results from a scientific six-month evaluation, which included pre/post store inventories and interviews with store owners. Twelve-month evaluations were also conducted; analysis will be completed soon. Results from the six-month evaluation include:
* 2 of 4 store owners reported increased profits, while 2 noted no change.
* 3 of 4 owners reported they learned how to stock and sell healthier food items as a result of participating in the initiative.
* 3 of 4 owners expressed challenges to selling fruits and/or vegetables, namely spoilage (1 of 4), the logistical difficulty of frequently buying small quantities to keep stock fresh (1 of 4), and the unpredictability of customer purchasing patterns (2 of 4).
We’ve received a lot of positive feedback in our evaluations from store owners, including that they appreciate the amount of staff support and other resources that CARE provides to them.
There have also been other indirect positive developments – we brokered a relationship between Eli, the owner of George St. Deli, and City Seed so that City Seed could host their mobile market in the parking lot of Eli’s store (he owns the building and adjacent lot). This has provided a large uptick in traffic to Eli’s store, and he has even been able to purchase fresh produce to sell directly in his store. He has been thrilled with this collaboration.
We are extremely appreciative to store owners who have taken part in the project. We will continue to do our best to bring resources to their stores.
Director, Community Initiatives