September 15, 2016

Is WIC an Option for Corner Stores?

Bengucan Gunen

Bengucan Gunen

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Ashley talks with some some people at Linden Market.

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 second of those stories. 

Of the approximately 621,000 people living in Baltimore, 25 percent live in food deserts. Within the span of three months, my HFAI team visited roughly 1,000 food retail outlets in Baltimore. We went into corner stores, small groceries, supermarkets, gas stations and pharmacies, visiting between 60 and 90 stores every week.

Corner stores, which make up about two thirds of the retail food offerings in food deserts, come in all shapes and sizes. It is not uncommon to see a store without a name, or with a few cats in residence. One of these stores, less than one mile away from our office at the Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future, was especially welcoming toward me and my data collection partner, Jelani Robinson. The manager of the store wished to remain anonymous in this post, but he agreed to take part in an interview to share his experiences as a store manager. For this post, I’ll refer to him as Mr. Robert.

Mr. Robert, who has been in this business for 22 years, is originally from New York. Although the store is open from 7am until midnight, he is in charge of the store for the first seven hours of their daily operation. He does make an effort to stock healthy foods in their store, which is also reflected by the shelves full of dried beans and canned fruits and vegetables.

hfai-team-2016As we conducted the interview, we noticed that the store was busier than most corner stores we had visited. About 10 customers, some of them children, came in and went out over the course of our 10-minute conversation with Mr. Robert. Although he had been working in this neighborhood for only eight months, he was friendly and personable towards the customers. He also told us that he is involved with the community outside of managing this store and likes to spend time with the children in the neighborhood after he is done with work.

Since Mr. Robert seemed to be the face of the store for most of the customers that came in, I was curious to learn whether he made most of the decisions regarding this business or followed the lead of the storeowner instead. He told us that he advises the store owner what to stock and which strategies would be profitable. For example, he believes that getting their store licensed for WIC would be good for business. (WIC is the federally operated Women, Infants, Children program that provides nutrition assistance for families below a certain income threshold.) It’s up to the store owner to make the final decision about applying for WIC licensing; in order for the store to be eligible, the owner might need to bring in additional healthy food items. Mr. Robert added that he considers WIC-eligible items to be “regular food,” such as cereal. He expects that these products will be bought by customers even if they are not WIC recipients.

Overall, our exchange with Mr. Robert showed us that he expects supplemental nutrition programs to boost business. The store already accepts SNAP (formerly known as food stamps, a program that serves a broader population than WIC), and the owner is looking into expanding the variety of items they sell in their store. They will soon have a deli counter with cold cuts and cheese.

Our work at the Maryland Food Mapping Project this summer will be an update to the 2012 Healthy Food Availability Index (HFAI) Survey. The 2015 Food Environment Map, which was developed using data from the 2012 HFAI Survey, shows that 48 percent of neighborhoods in Baltimore contain food deserts. It will be very interesting to see whether this has improved over the four years since the 2012 HFAI Survey. After my conversations with several corner store managers and employers, it seems that incentivizing the stocking of healthy foods through food policy seems to be an appealing approach from the perspective of small food retail outlets.

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