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Trial 'mini-grocery' brings fresh food to poor neighborhoods

You might have trouble finding any attractive vegetables or fruits if you shop in the wrong stores. It’s especially challenging in poor neighborhoods, where mini-marts packed with beer, cigarettes and junk food may be all you can find.

One solution to be tested in Seattle this month will be in the form of a healthy corner store. Call it a mini-grocery.

And in this case, "mini" truly means very small. It started out inside a single shipping container. The first version was plopped down in a parking lot, like an espresso stand.

Now,  it’s evolved into a tiny storefront. It's called "Stockbox Grocery," in the South Park neighborhood, on Seattle’s industrial southern edge. Co-owner Carrie Ferrence says it’s a different niche than a super-market.

"There's a lot of potential for us to reimagine what a grocery store is," says Ferrence.

Her model is the old-fashioned corner store, before they all became convenience stores. And she says the economics pencil out, because of the low overhead on a store thats one-tenth the size of a typical grocery store.

"When we go to grocery we often buy the same five and ten items, every single week -- milk, bread, dairy, meat and produce. And those are the items that go bad the most frequently and are really the most important part of our food staple system," she says.

Stockbox shelves will be stocked with perishables. The first thing you'll see is a big produce display. Plus, they will stock a few snacks -- fruit leather for kids, wine for adults, and ice cream for everyone.

One of the biggest public health challenges today – maybe the biggest -- is getting people to eat more produce, and less sugary or processed stuff. And if those basics are hard to get, you get out of the habit of buying and eating them. 

Community groups suggested one other category, she says:

"Basic grab and go options -- sandwiches, salads, burritos, things that are packed full of vegetables and protein."

Those will serve the lunch time crowd along busy 14th Avenue, at the foot of the South Park Bridge.

Stockbox is a for-profit company, trying to prove healthy foods can survive without public subsidies in poor neighborhoods. They did get startup assistance from King County, in the form of an $11,700 grant and connections to a lender.

That was a tiny part of a two-year federal stimulus grant that is just expiring, called Communities Putting Prevention to Work. It tried to push vegetables and fruits in King County neighborhoods such as this one, with bad health profiles. Project managers are still analyzing the outcomes, but they say it clearly had mixed success, says Ryan Kellogg of Public Health Seattle & King County.

The project worked best when ethnic grocery stores joined the cause. Stockbox happens to be across the street from a Mexican mini-mart, and there's no telling how the competition will sort out.

Ferrence says Stockbox hopes to open four more stores in 2013, in south Seattle and south King County.

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.