California Gives a Big Boost to Corner Stores that Sell Fresh Produce | Civil Eats

California Gives a Big Boost to Corner Stores that Sell Fresh Produce

The state’s Healthy Refrigeration Grant Program will invest $20 million to bring fresh produce to low-access communities in 2022. 

Fresh produce on display at Laredo Market in San Jose, California. (Photo courtesy of The Food Trust)

Fresh produce on display at Laredo Market in San Jose, California. (Photo courtesy of The Food Trust)

“The first thing you see [when you walk in the door] is the produce case,” said Ammar Talib, who runs Jalisco Market, a small market in East Oakland, California. That case is stocked with the essentials, ordered two times a week: onions, tomatoes, bananas, greens, and a host of other fresh fruits and vegetables.

His customers were “really, really excited” when he brought fresh produce into the corner store, which is otherwise stocked with snack foods and some shelf-stable household essentials. “I wasn’t expecting that,” he added, reflecting that he wants to feed his family well, and wants to do the same by his neighborhood, which is clearly eager for fresh foods.

Anmar Talib stocks the fresh produce fridge at the Jalisco Market in Oakland, California. (Photo courtesy of Saba Grocers Initiative)

Anmar Talib stocks the fresh produce fridge at the Jalisco Market in Oakland, California. (Photo courtesy of Saba Grocers Initiative)

The store is a participant in Saba Grocers, an East Bay initiative that connects store owners with refrigeration for fresh produce and distribution so they can keep those fridges stocked. Talib stressed that both were critical for him; he had tried buying produce in bulk for his customers, but was quickly overwhelmed with food waste because he couldn’t buy in small volumes. Saba lets him order what he needs, on a schedule that works for him.

Saba is supported in part by California’s Healthy Refrigeration Grant Program, administered by the state’s Office of Farm to Fork. The program, which offers grants to individual stores as well as organizations, is using corner stores and small markets to expand access to fresh foods for residents of communities experiencing food apartheid, a shortage of access to fresh, diverse foods affecting some 17.4 percent of Americans.

The state has been expanding the program since its inception in 2018; it awarded $2.8 million the first year, $1.6 million the second year, and then a 2021 bill allocated $20 million to healthy corner stores for 2022. But whether that will be enough to really tackle food access in a meaningful way across the state is yet to be seen.

The grants help bridge a gap between what store owners want to offer their communities and what they are able to do on their own. “Many of the stores don’t have any kind of refrigeration that would allow them to sell fresh produce,” said Juan Vila, a senior associate with the Community Food Retail Team at the Food Trust, who is based in San Jose. Once stores have refrigeration in place, they’re encouraged to prioritize California-grown produce, including greens, nuts, and fruits. In Talib’s case, demand is growing quickly enough that he anticipates expanding his produce refrigeration by the end of the year.

A Popular Intervention, with Mixed Results

Healthy corner store programs like this one or the Food Trust’s well-established nationwide network are rooted in making it easier for consumers to access fresh food in the hopes that it will motivate dietary change in low-income communities facing elevated rates of diet-related illness. With interventions intended to expand fresh food options, the more communities are engaged, the more successful the program, which is one reason why corner and convenience stores can be a good option; store owners know their clientele well and can adjust offerings to meet expressed needs, rather than making stock decisions from a generic playbook developed outside the community.

“These places are really central to communities,” said Rochelle Butler of San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization. She works with stores in rural California, where residents often work on farms, but have notoriously low access to fruits and vegetables themselves. “One person regularly shops over half an hour away. She told us, ‘I am so excited that I don’t have to drive over the hill and 10 miles down the road to get fresh food,’” added Butler. For stores and customers alike, the program also helps build community, and survival during the pandemic.

Refrigeration isn’t the only change: Stores can use the grants to add signage, advertise fresh products, and leverage double up programs, which allow customers to double their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. But success is heavily dependent on building rapport and trust. “[Store owners] have been comfortable because we speak their language, we’re from their community, a lot of us will interact at mosque and social events,” said Lina Ghanem, Director and Founder of Saba, on how she connects with other store owners.

All this sounds promising, but evidence for such programs is quite mixed. Some researchers report success with healthy corner store programs, while others have found them ineffective; overall, the landscape of conversations about food apartheid is changing as researchers and advocates realize that distance from a grocery store is not the sole determiner of diet. Other factors can include available time, disability status, family size, social relationships, and personal preferences, which may not be solvable with broccoli at the corner store. And research suggests that in some communities, residents are simply in the habit of going further afield, whether relying on transit, personal vehicles, or rides from friends, to access a wider variety of foods. (This tendency might partly explain the recent closure of Community Foods Market, the first full-service grocery store in West Oakland). The incredibly wild spread in results may also simply reflect that healthy corner stores work better in some areas and contexts more than others, and are not a one-size-fits-all public health intervention.

Offering Culturally Relevant Foods

The need for culturally relevant foods is also a critical element of programs like these. Sometimes known as culturally specific, sensitive, or appropriate foods, these are staple foods in the diet of a given community, a big concern in a state with as many immigrant communities as California. Mexican-American residents might look for different staples than Hmong Americans, or immigrants from Sudan, for instance. A 2010 study from the American Dietetic Association noted that even in immigrant neighborhoods, culturally relevant foods weren’t always available, posing a potential barrier to eating fresh foods for people who shop close to home. But the structure of healthy corner store programs like the one in California encourages store owners to connect with their customers and find out what they want—especially in the case of immigrant store owners who are already deeply engaged with their communities.

Fresh produce at Mercado Las Palmas. (Photo courtesy of Food Trust)

Fresh produce at Mercado Las Palmas. (Photo courtesy of Food Trust)

In addition, Saba’s Ghanem said a successful intervention must support immigrant store owners as well as customers. “In terms of equity, it’s not just residents having trouble, it’s also businesses having trouble accessing healthy foods,” she added. The stores the group works with are limited by access to distributors, not just customer tastes. Distributors won’t deliver to small stores with even smaller orders, forcing owners to pick produce up at a warehouse or cash-and-carry facility, adding time and complexity to the task of stocking fresh produce. Saba addressed this issue by simply becoming a distributor, offering a growing list of almost 90 items and delivering them to their partner stores; their model is so successful that Talib noted his customers say his produce is fresher than other area stores.

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The need for culturally relevant foods is also a big concern in a state with as many immigrant communities as California. Mexican-American residents might look for different staples than Hmong Americans, or immigrants from Sudan, for instance.

Without culturally relevant foods, a fresh food program can wither on the vine due to lack of interest. A recent amendment to Minneapolis’ landmark Staple Foods Ordinance illustrates the changing policy landscape when it comes to culturally relevant foods. After seeing that a requirement to stock a core set of foods at licensed grocery stores, including eggs and fresh vegetables, wasn’t a good fit across the city, officials shifted the mandate in the ordinance to include flexibility for foods outside the standard Western diet.

Risks and Challenges for California’s Healthy Stores Program

In research performed by the Nutrition Policy Institute, store owners noted that the Healthy Refrigeration Grant Program’s California-grown specification posed a significant hurdle. Some produce doesn’t have origin labels at all, making it impossible to determine if it qualifies, and sometimes the fruits and vegetables that customers prefer aren’t available at an affordable price from California growers. One store owner cited avocados, noting that Mexican avocados were $1, while California avocados could be three or even four times as much, a price differential hard to justify to his customers. And while the state has an incredibly diverse agriculture sector, it’s not comprehensive: Limes, a staple on many immigrant tables, aren’t widely grown in California for instance.

This wasn’t the only challenge. The pandemic also presented some distinctive hurdles to California’s program. Refrigerators have been among the many appliances caught up in supply chain delays, making it difficult for some stores to obtain fridges to stock in the first place. Public health precautions also put pressure on small businesses. Pam Bold, executive director of High Sierra Energy, a December 2019 grantee in Mono County that supplied support to small stores with an energy-efficiency focus, told Civil Eats that one tiny store had to struggle to stay open during the shelter in place orders.

The Saba Grocers Initiative's fresh produce fridge at the Jalisco Market in Oakland, California. (Photo courtesy of Saba)

The Saba Grocers Initiative’s fresh produce fridge at the Jalisco Market in Oakland, California. (Photo courtesy of Saba)

“During [early] COVID, such a small space didn’t allow for social distancing,” and installing an order window prevented people from going inside to see the produce. The solution involved repositioning the fridge so people could see it from outside the store and make a selection. That store’s owner did have a stocking advantage, though: They lived next door to the farm used as a supplier.

Learning and Looking Forward

Determining whether programs like this are truly effective takes time, and assessing performance during an unprecedented pandemic isn’t entirely fair. Many small businesses in California struggled in 2020 and 2021, and many consumers changed their spending and cooking habits in response to pressures ranging from lost jobs to the desire to reduce risk of coronavirus exposure. Where once people might have made multiple trips a day to the corner store, or run out without thinking to pick up a carton of milk, now they may hesitate.

In a stressed food system, some consumers found it easier than others to adapt; certainly those who could get to the grocery store or access food delivery services were in a better position than those isolated by transit cuts, costly privatized transportation, and caregiving obligations. The data’s still out on whether increased access to fresh food in small stores across the state helped low-income people dealing with numerous competing pressures during the pandemic, and what it might mean for the future.

The preliminary findings from the Nutrition Policy Institute are optimistic, though, with more extensive research that covers an expansive period of time due out later in 2022. Recommendations like relaxing the California-grown recommendations could easily be implemented in the next round of grants, providing needed flexibility and support for program participants. The state has already increased funding for technical assistance, which can include help locating local growers and negotiating contracts with them. Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change, a sustainability-focused advocacy organization that heavily supported the latest round of funding, told Civil Eats this is especially important, including funding for needed implementation changes such as remodeling or addressing the high costs of refrigeration. And there are also potential ties for green energy; in addition to increasing refrigeration efficiency, grantees could also explore solar, as the Santa Clara-based group Veggielution did in the second round of funding.

The state has not yet announced specifics about the third round of grants, but the substantial increase in funding is a win for advocates at a time when food security is a pressing concern across the state. Research to learn more about what’s working and what isn’t is also crucial, to target funds and interventions more effectively; for example, Ghanem notes that without reliable distribution, those fridges can turn into empty wastelands.

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In the meantime, Anmar’s customers will keep buying bananas and spinach, and in isolated, rural California, a cook will be happy that they can pick up potatoes at the market, instead of having to drive 25 minutes to get to the grocery store.

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based writer a National Magazine Award-winning essayist and journalist, focused on social issues including labour organizing, disability, death and dying, feminism, LGBQTIA issues, and cultural analysis. Read more >

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