September 9, 2016
Over the summer of 2016, CLF’s Map Team interns visited every known food store in Baltimore City to collect data for the Healthy Food Availability Index (HFAI)—but they also took time to interview some of the store owners and learn about their challenges and successes. Here’s the first of those stories.
This summer my fellow CLF interns and I visited every food store in the city, from tiny gas stations selling only peanuts and soda, to organic supermarkets selling sustainable grasshopper flour desserts, to every corner store in between. In addition to the variety of data we were able to collect with our surveys, we also had the opportunity to interact with customers shopping in the stores, residents strolling the streets, and longtime store owners and employees. One such employee is Kamaira Cozart-Bey, who goes by the nickname Toot and works in the West Baltimore corner store, Everything Cheap. She was very open about her experiences with the store and was quick to tell us that in the short time she’s worked there, she has seen big changes in the store and community environment.
When we told her about our HFAI project, Toot excitedly ushered us over to a small refrigerator in the corner that was stocked with bags of carrots, packages of mushrooms, and other fresh vegetables. Her enthusiasm and pride in the fact that her store stocks fresh foods and is frequented by customers who regularly request healthy foods led to a long conversation about the day-to-day workings of small local stores like Everything Cheap.
At the time of our interview, Toot had only worked at the store for about two months, but because of her longtime friendship with the owner, she was able to share much more about its history than the average employee would know. Before Toot was hired, the owner was doing much of the work on her own and was having issues controlling petty shoplifting, like kids stealing chips and sodas. Since Toot has begun working though, she claims the store has seen many improvements, one of them being the relationships with customers. She says the stealing has drastically decreased, and as a result the store owner is able to put more products on the shelves without concern that they will be stolen. Customers – mothers especially – now come into the store requesting fruits and vegetables and other staple items like rice or whole wheat bread.
With the start of school just around the corner, lunchbox foods such as baby carrots and apples are flying off the shelves. Toot seems proud that the store has a real demand for reasonably priced fresh fruits, joking that “as soon as we run out of bananas, that’s when everyone comes in asking for bananas and apples.” While the store owner makes most of the stocking decisions on her own, Toot says the big focus of this tiny store is to “try and keep at least the options, so kids don’t have to get chips.” The big seller this summer has apparently been veggie straws, a popular alternative to greasy potato chips, and when they run out of the straws, they try to replace them with nuts for another alternative.
Broadly discussing the future, Toot thinks aloud that she might want to open up a store of her own later on, although she believes that young female store owners, like her friend who owns Everything Cheap, face challenges in a city populated with male-owned establishments. The store where Toot works has been struggling to get access to EBT machines for SNAP customers. SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is a federal nutrition assistance program for people below a certain income threshold. In the past, food stamp participants used paper coupons to redeem their benefits in stores, but over the last few years this system has been replaced with an electronic operation.
SNAP participants now use an EBT card — essentially a debit card — to redeem benefits in stores. The cost of the equipment and technology to use these cards is prohibitive for many storeowners, but the cost of staple grocery items is prohibitive for many customers of these small corner stores. Toot remembers one woman who had finished her weekly grocery shopping with her arms full of milk, rice, eggs, cheese, and other basic meal prep foods. The woman couldn’t afford the $15 worth of food without supplementing with her EBT card, and therefore couldn’t buy the groceries from Toot’s store. Everything Cheap is unique in that it offers a variety of fresh and healthy foods that many other corner stores do not stock, and Toot insists that she and the owner will continue to seek ways to acquire an EBT machine to be able to better-connect local customers with these important diet staples.
In addition to seeing the business- or product-focused side of Baltimore corner stores this summer, I also learned about how these stores interact with their communities. Corner stores like Everything Cheap play huge roles in the neighborhoods in which they are located – largely because many residents do not have cars, and shop at the stores that are nearest to their homes. The importance of the store-neighborhood relationship was reflected in the way Toot often described the community and the people before covering the specifics of the store, heading off the interview with, “The neighborhood is not the best, but the actual people are not what you would expect. They come in and they talk to you and they’re not disrespectful. They do what they do but they do it outside the store.” Not surprisingly, many owners get involved in their neighborhoods outside of store hours, as demonstrated by one sign hanging next to the cash register advertising a back to school event that a local barber shop hosts every year. Toot explained that the barber shop owner collects backpacks and stuffs them with school supplies and snacks for kids who often otherwise go to school without pencils and notebooks. As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and in many Baltimore “villages” this clearly includes local small business owners, too.
Everything Cheap Discount Mart is located on the 1300 block of W Lafayette Avenue.
Images by Meredith Stifter, 2016.