Want to run a restaurant? Chances are you’ll need a license that requires you to meet certain health standards in order to stay in business.
But what if you want to run a convenience store? If there are no supermarkets nearby, residents may rely on that store for their groceries–and we all know it’s much easier to find chips and soda at most convenience stores than it is to find fruits and vegetables.
Imagine that your city took a novel step in the name of public health. Under new licensing requirements, all stores selling food and beverages–including mini-marts and corner stores–must devote a certain amount of store space to produce and other healthy staple foods, and they have to limit the amount dedicated to sugary drinks and alcohol.
Unprecedented? Not quite. Minneapolis began setting nutrition standards like these for food sellers in 2008, and now more than 300 convenience stores throughout the city are required to carry produce and staple foods.
Why haven’t more cities followed Minneapolis’ lead? Government officials are trying to tackle the obesity problem from every angle–but few have considered expanding retail licensing laws in this relatively small way.
A New Twist on a Proven Tool
There’s nothing new about the idea of using a licensing program to promote public health and safety. All kinds of businesses require a license, from tobacco stores and massage parlors to gun shops and restaurants.
So why not extend the idea to one of the greatest public health challenges of our time? Chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes are the most common and costly of all health problems in America, accounting for three-quarters of the nation’s health care spending. The government has a duty to use all the tools at its disposal to help change these trends.
What’s more, stores stand to increase sales under the improvements a licensing program would require. Across the country, stores participating in local corner store conversion programs–voluntary efforts to encourage small store owners to stock more nutritious foods–have reported increased revenue after adding healthier offerings to their shelves. By stocking more produce, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and other staple foods, stores also may become eligible vendors for programs like WIC or SNAP.
The benefits of “healthy licensing” can go beyond nutrition. The impetus for Minneapolis’ program was actually crime prevention: city officials had been getting complaints about corner stores being a crime magnet and sought a way to draw in more customers, making the stores less of a haven for criminals. The city’s grocery license requirements call not only for more healthy foods but also for better store lighting and limits on signage blocking the windows.
Of course, it’ll take more than stepping up licensing standards to make neighborhoods healthier and safer–but it’s a step in the right direction. Encouraging families to eat better is pointless if healthier foods are out of reach. A small change in local licensing laws could make healthier choices easier for entire communities.
A version of this originally appeared at Sustainable Cities Institute