In most St. Louis communities, corner stores, convenience stores and gas stations are a common part of the food-retail landscape. They serve as places to get a snack, grab a quick sandwich or purchase basic household goods. Many also sell tobacco, alcohol and other items. While some store façades have fallen into disrepair or become a neighborhood nuisance due to loitering or other safety issues, others have become part of the neighborhood’s social fabric and are a gathering place for neighbors.
Therein lies both the opportunity and challenge of working with small retailers in St. Louis. These stores can be seen as nuisances, or they can be seen as potential partners in creating healthy, vibrant and strong neighborhoods. Across the country, communities have begun working with corner stores, bodegas and rural groceries to increase access to healthy, affordable foods by making changes that improve both the store environment and the food inventory offered.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that 23.5 million Americans do not have easy access (i.e., access within one mile of residence) to full-service supermarkets. While there may be a corner store nearby, most lack fresh fruits and vegetables, and low-fat snack or beverage options. Residents are left with a diet of high-priced, processed foods, which ultimately leads to the growing obesity epidemic and numerous other health issues.
Due to the positive association between the retail environment and diet, one objective of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy People 2020 plan is to increase the percentage of persons with access to a retailer that sells the various healthy foods recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including fruits and vegetables, whole-grain foods and low-fat dairy products. In order to meet this objective, healthy retailer programs have become a promising strategy for closing the food gap across the country.
To improve access to healthy, affordable foods in city neighborhoods, the St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project was launched in 2011 as a collaboration between University of Missouri Extension, the city of St. Louis departments of Health and Public Safety, and the St. Louis Development Corporation. In partnership with communities and corner store owners, the project delivers a comprehensive approach that combines community development, small-business support, nutrition education and greater availability of affordable, nutritious foods.
What makes the St. Louis program unique is the emphasis on building demand for healthy foods through a nomination process. Neighborhood stores must be nominated to be a part of the program by a resident-driven neighborhood association, community-based nonprofit, school or faith-based organization. The nomination requires the identification of both a neighborhood corner store and a leadership group in the community. In doing so, the project attempts to address both supply and demand with a goal of lessening the potential burden on participating stores. Initial demand is created by a neighborhood organization committing to support the store through the nomination. This demand then lowers the risk to the retailer who will be increasing the store’s supply of healthy inventory. Nominations are evaluated based on a variety of factors related to community support, neighborhood characteristics, local health data and store capacity. Each neighborhood and store works with the project for one year.
Once selected, each store owner is paired with a grocery professional who serves as a mentor; together they identify healthy inventory options with existing distributors, identify new suppliers and improve store layout. Stores receive small merchandising supplies such as produce baskets and project signs, as well as the St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project Resource Guidebook filled with tips on food safety, storage and merchandising. The original goal was to increase the percentage of healthy food inventory by five percent per store after one year. Participating stores have far exceeded this goal, averaging a 25 percent increase in healthy food shelf space.
The nominating organization forms a neighborhood leadership team that organizes a variety of community education and outreach activities. Limited funding is available for related expenses. Each team defines their own activities; they have identified and organized a variety of successful programs, including a neighborhood healthy food festival, youth cooking competition, bike rack installation at a corner store, and a healthy eating poster competition with the winning posters displayed at the store.
The project acknowledges that simply increasing availability of healthy foods is not enough to have a large-scale impact. Education is key. Therefore, education is provided in each store and in the community. Point-of-decision prompts are placed by healthy products to make the healthy choice easy for customers. Taste tests are held at each store using recipes developed by the team that utilize products typically sold at small neighborhood stores. Nutrition education classes, taught by professionals from University of Missouri Extension and co-hosted by the neighborhood leadership team, are held in each community. As a result, nearly 400 customers have sampled recipes at store taste tests and more than 80 residents have attended nutrition education classes over the last year.
While communities have a variety of strategies at their disposal to improve diets and reduce obesity rates, working with retailers is a win-win approach to improving community health. Participating stores get free publicity and community support for increasing revenue from healthy food sales. Community members gain access to healthier food options and education about nutrition. The St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project serves as a local model for closing the food gap by working with existing small food retailers, establishing partnerships with community-based organizations and providing nutrition education to St. Louis neighborhoods. To learn more about the St. Louis Healthy Corner Store Project, please visit www.extension.missouri.edu/stlouis/healthycornerstore.aspx.