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Corner stores get makeovers as part of the Healthy Corner Store Project

on December 11, 2014

Bins of onions and potatoes, frozen vegetables, racks of wheat bread, flour and corn tortillas now greet shoppers at the entrance to Three Amigos Market, an East Oakland fixture leading a citywide transformation.

Signs for liquor and cigarettes have come down, and nutritional staples take pride of place. A deli counter now sporting a spare selection of tomatoes, lemons and shredded cheese may expand with future offerings of sandwiches and soup.

“I like to help people,” said owner Abdu Abdulalim, an Eritrean immigrant and former chef who has a collection customer photos above the checkout stand. “Your neighborhood is your family,” he added. “That’s what we believe.”

It’s all part of a nutritional makeover driven by HOPE – Health for Oakland’s People and Environment Collaborative. Abdulalim, who has owned Three Amigos at 13th Avenue and Foothill Boulevard for 10 years, said he was apprehensive at first. After several meetings, he said, he decided, “Why not?”

Last year, the HOPE Collaborative surveyed 70 Oakland corner stores in areas far removed from major grocery stores or close to schools to find out the needs of owners and whether they’d like to participate in the Healthy Corner Store Project. Today, the collaborative is working with seven stores in Oakland. Three Amigos is furthest along, said project director Sabrina Wu.

“We consistently heard there was no quality place in their neighborhood to meet their basic needs of groceries,” Wu said of community surveys. HOPE polled neighborhoods to learn their wants, needs and how much they spend per meal. People replied they want more apples, bananas and prepared meals in their community stores, said project associate Angela Hadwin.

Fruit is a rarity among the Mom and Pop shops that dot the urban food deserts.  The collaborative encourages every store to carry more fresh produce. But corner stores that tried to carry produce in the past have had a hard time selling it, Wu said.

That’s why the collaborative doesn’t apply a one size fits all approach to the stores. The collaborative surveys communities to find out what kind of food they want in their corner stores in order to set up the store owners for success; HOPE wants the corner stores to make money with their healthful foods so they continue selling them.

One reason that customers weren’t buying fruit is that many small markets don’t have the facilities to store fresh food properly.

At the Sunbeam Market located at Adeline and 14th Streets, owner Muaamar (Ali) Almualm said fresh fruit often goes bad because he doesn’t have a way to keep it chilled. He hopes to add both a cooler and a deli to his store.

“There’s no one around here [selling] fruit and vegetable and meat,” Almualm said. “It’s a family area, so people like to get stuff like this.”

HOPE collaborative is working with owners who are interested in adding a prepared food section, such as a deli, that would provide soup, sandwiches or smoothies. The section could be profitable for the business, Wu said. Produce that doesn’t sell could be turned into sandwiches, soup or stew, which would minimize loss for the store.

“The way people shop, they’re not going to these convenience stores for weekly groceries,” Wu added.. “They are going for something fast and easy, something grab-and-go that’s already prepared.”

Adding broader nutritional offerings requires investment. Abdulalim, for one, hopes to expand his deli section, which contains sour cream, shredded cheese, lemons, sandwich meat and hot dogs, to include grab-and-go sandwiches. He’d like to hire an employee to manage the deli. but worries whether he’ll have enough business to warrant the additional employee. If the deli is successful, he’ll hire a second person to sell fresh produce outside his shop, he said.

The collaborative is seeking change by supporting and working with existing small stores, rather than trying to push for new stores. “We’ve spent a lot of time building up the concept for how we would go about it,” Wu said, “because there have been many corner store convergences over the past decade–some more successful than others.”

James Johnson-Piett, CEO of Urbane Development, the firm contracted to be the primary consultant of the project, helped develop survey and assessment tools for HOPE. Besides Oakland, the firm has clients in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Toronto, and Detroit; and has even done work in Nicaragua.

A unique aspect of Urbane Development’s approach to changing corner stores is its emphasis on prepared food, Johnson-Piett said. In order for corner stores to make a decent profit margin and also impact caloric intake, the organization has moved beyond pushing just healthy single ingredients–like produce, meat and dairy–to such assembled offerings such as fruit cups and salads.

Programs that were entirely grant-funded or driven by health departments generally didn’t lead to lasting changes in the community, Wu said. “When grant funding ran out, they couldn’t dedicate the time, troubleshooting or the work the store owner really needed to make sure it was successful over the long term,” she said.

Instead, the collaborative connects store owners to community resources and helps them form relationships with community partners, a process Hadwin described as “exciting.” The collaborative also helps store owners get low cost loans and matching grants.

Members of a Youth Action Board do grassroots marketing and outreach to bring people to the store, Hadwin said.

Many store owners don’t have business experience, Wu said. “We want to build that in early on, help store owners understand how changes impact their bottom line,” she said. “Most don’t know their top-selling items, where they’re making money, or how to mark up.”

The collaborative helped Abdulalim install a new register system and connected him to community partner East Side Arts Alliance.

The aim is for the store owners to be invested in the changes and to feel like they have the resources and capacity to continue the changes, Hadwin said. HOPE is only working with store owners who want to participate and pursued quality over quantity. “We started with a small number and went really deep with each one,” Wu said.

At the Three Amigos, volunteers reorganized the aisles so that they more closely resemble grocery aisles; previously groceries and household items were mixed haphazardly, but now items are arranged so that they are easier to find, Hadwin said. Volunteers also organized a community taste test day for potential deli items, such as chicken salad sandwiches.

“I’m waiting for that,” shopper Jose Quintor said. “I like sandwiches.”

Quintor , who visits the store nearly every day to buy milk, cereal or beer, said he’s eager for the store to open a deli.

The project has been more challenging than anticipated, Hadwin said.  Unforeseen challenges arose, from store ownership changes to owners getting “caught up in the law.” For example, one store owner said he owned tens of thousands of dollars in state taxes because he had a bad accountant. Another potential participant couldn’t get his 15 family members to agree on what changes to make, Hadwin said. Another shop owner left for Africa for four months after the death of a relative.

“As a pilot program, we’re learning as we go what some of the barriers and challenges are for the store owners on the ground,” Hadwin said.

Wu said says she’ll consider the project successful if there are lasting changes in the communities. She also hopes to find a permanent home for the Healthy Corner Store Project.

Wu thinks the program will have the best chance of success if management passes to a public agency. Hadwin says next year will be a turning point for the project.

“I think that in 2015 we’ll see several of the stores we’ve been working with and cultivating over this past year really transform,” she said.


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