Report From Food-Desert Front Lines

Published in CSP Daily News

Philadelphia corner store initiative shares insights on program

By  Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Special Projects Coordinator

PHILADELPHIA -- As convenience store chains develop and wrestle with offering healthful options to their customers, the down-and-dirty ground war against food deserts is taking place in the humble corner store. One of the biggest efforts at re-focusing the corner store to be a healthful food option--The Food Trust's Philadelphia Healthy Corner Store Initiative (PHCSI)--has just released a report summarizing the program's progress to date.

PHCSI sets up local Philadelphia corner stores with training, marketing assistance and, in some cases, equipment to begin offering healthful choices. In the past two years, more than 600 Philadelphia corner-store owners have participated in the PHCSI, all of them in ZIP codes with the lowest incomes in the city. (The Food Trust defines corner stores as being less than 2,000 square feet with four aisles or less, and one cash register.)

The program has five thrusts:

  • Increase store capacity to sell and market healthful items to options in food-desert communities.
  • Offer training and technical assistance to store owners to make selling healthful food profitable.
  • Market messages to consumers to encourage healthful eating choices.
  • Educate youth in schools near targeted corner stores on nutrition and to reinforce healthy messages.
  • Link corner-store owners to community partners, local farmers and fresh-food suppliers to create and sustain a healthful food offer.

The Food Trust identified corner stores through a list of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)- and Women, Infants & Children (WIC)-certified businesses, street canvassing and through print materials and radio advertisements. Of the 1,500 stores that were eligible for enrollment, 630 agreed to the program's requirements for participation, which includes introducing four new healthful products (Phase 1); implementing a Healthy Food Identification marketing campaign (Phase 2); training on business management and the profitable sale of healthful perishable foods (Phase 3); and, if qualified, undergoing a customized conversion to expand the inventory of healthful products (Phase 4).

Once owners successfully implement the first two phases of the program, they receive a $100 incentive check for each year of participation. Because corner stores often lack the equipment to stock perishable goods, PHCSI provided 100 customized conversions--which it describes as infrastructural changes such as shelving and small refrigeration units--with an average conversion cost of $1,390. The average converted site introduced 44 new healthful products, with almost half being fresh fruits and vegetables.

The majority of enrolled stores, or 83%, introduced four or more new healthful products, which include fruit and vegetables (90%); low-fat dairy products (73%); whole-grain products (84%); and healthful beverages or snacks (82%). Stores at the basic participation level introduced an average of 36 new healthful products, greatly above the four-item minimum.

Some of the biggest keys to success for the two-year program include:

  • Position healthful products as a strategy for increasing profits. "By working with the owner to understand the store's particular customer base and operations, project staff are able to help owners decide which products would work best for the store and determine what additional support may be needed to ensure success," the PHCSI report said.
  • Make small, gradual, phased in changes to help store owners adjust to the demands of selling perishable inventory. This also enables PHCSI staff gauge a store owner's level of commitment to making and maintaining the changes.
  • Provide a simple, easy-to-follow plan to help corner-store owners introduce new inventory and take on new risk.
  • Supply store owners with training and support to ensure changes are profitable and sustainable. Develop a customized training plan based on inventory introduced, staff assessments and owner feedback to target each owner's specific needs.
By Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Special Projects Coordinator
View More Articles By Samantha Oller