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The real reason no one buys produce in low-income areas

What if fresh foods were easier to find in lower income neighborhoods?  Would that lead to less obesity and disease? 

King County has been testing this idea by offering store-owners a free “makeover” to help them sell fresh produce.

They discovered: selling fresh fruits and vegetables poses surprising challenges. Some are cultural, since many small stores are owned by recent immigrants. Others involve the hidden world of produce wholesaling.Only a truly motivated owner can make it work. Just think of how many people work in the produce department at your favorite supermarket, and how much goes into keeping everything looking appetizing, from automatic sprayers to mood-lights.

Healthier corner stores

The lack of a decent grocery store is a common complaint in lower-income neighborhoods, especially for people who don’t have a car. They often depend on convenience stores, which specialize in cigarettes, candy, and junk food.

A national movement to fix that, called Healthy Corner Stores, emerged from places like Philadelphia and Chicago, which have inner city bodegas that serve neighborhoods.

Hoping to try the same thing here, the King County public health agency received a federal stimulus grant in 2009, to spend up to $1.45 million on creating healthy corner stores in areas that have high rates of poverty and high rates of obesity. They zeroed in on south Seattle and the neighboring suburbs, such as Tukwila, Renton, and Auburn.

“We visited hundreds of stores,” says Branden Born, a professor of urban planning at the University of Washington and a consultant on the project. That’s after combing through a public health database of every food retail outlet in King County.

Owners not interested

They soon discovered that poor neighborhoods in the Puget Sound area don’t have many of those corner stores. Instead, they might have a gas station with a mini-mart attached, or an ethnic specialty store. And most of the mini-mart owners they approached weren’t really interested in selling produce.

So, they focused on the ethnic specialty stores–owned by Mexican or Korean or African immigrants, and catering to those communities.

For example, a Somali immigrant named Abdi Aden was originally so fixed on selling produce he named his store “Fresh and Green Market.” But, he discovered obstacles.

“You cannot make money on the produce. Then, I decided to add groceries,” meaning packaged foods, he says.

He could make money from the packaged foods and from Halal meats that cater to his Islamic customers.

The mini-grocery “makeover”

His location, in a converted house, not far from International Blvd. in Tukwila, and about a mile from Sea-Tac Airport, has a high concentration of African immigrants.

“It was kind of chaotic,” says Born, of his first impression. “There was a very small selection of produce, much of it kind of dated. Lots of bags of potatoes and onions just stacked up. And, so, we began to reorganize the front of store.”

Now when you enter, instead of tired produce, piled on low shelves, you see a tidy arrangement including tomatoes, limes, peppers, and cabbage – behind the clean glass doors of two tall coolers. Eggs and yogurt sit alongside. The federal grant paid for the coolers, second-hand.  They still say "Cold Drinks," but the Coke and Pepsi are gone.

The makeover involved a lot more than new coolers. It included everything from new signs, to lessons in using coupons for marketing, to assistance in getting the right health permits.

Are you a produce person? That’s the key

The biggest hurdle: becoming a produce person.

If you want fresh deliveries from your wholesaler, you need a relationship. So, the consultants played match-maker between shop-owners and one of the big local distributors, Charlie’s Produce.

A grocery consultant taught the stores about keeping some produce wet, but others dry, and about keeping it all looking fresh.

This adds up to a lot of work, just to sell fruits and vegetables and not lose money.

Born says most of your typical convenience store owners weren’t motivated enough to follow through. Out of about 60 stores that originally signed up for the “Healthy Foods Here” project, about 18 could be considered highly successful, according to Tammy Morales, who managed the project.

The biggest success outside of the ethnic stores was at Walgreens. The drug store chain added small displays of fresh produce in seven of its stores.

Not lucrative, but customer loyalty improves

One payoff for stores that jump through all the hoops is getting certified by the food-stamps program.

And stores can build customer loyalty.

“I can get a lot of things here at one time, versus going to Safeway and then coming here looking for other things,” says Jeanette Beshar, who was shopping at the Fresh and Green Market in Tukwila.

She comes mostly for the specialty spices and meats, but the produce gets her to stop more often.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.