Along with the lottery tickets, cigarettes, and Doritos, what if more corner stores offered fresh fruits and vegetables?
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University tested out the concept through a pilot project that paired two corner stores in Baltimore with two urban farmers, who delivered fresh produce to the shops each week. The stores sold the seasonal fruits, root vegetables, and squash at farm-stand prices.
The findings from the 2012 project, which showed promise for this type of collaboration, were published in a study a few months ago in the journal Public Health Nutrition. Researchers are now working to expand the project to more stores and farms.
The research aims to address the problem of urban "food deserts," areas in which residents lack access to fresh, healthy food options—creating a number of diet-related health issues.
"Because of time and transportation issues, many low-income families rely on corner neighborhood stores to purchase food, so having healthy fruits and vegetables available there gives them options to make dietary changes they need to stay healthy," says Kimberly Gudzune, assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The pilot reaped rewards for one of the participating corner stores, in Reservoir Hill, which sold 86 percent of the produce delivered and ended up stocking eight times more fresh produce than it did before the collaboration.
The second corner store, in Belair-Edison, sold 63 percent of the produce delivered and did not significantly increase produce variety.
The differences in the two experiences, the researchers say, highlight critical factors for addressing urban food deserts. The store in Belair-Edison faced competition from a nearby supermarket and other stores, and served mainly commuters and students; while the Reservoir Hill store had no nearby competitors and received support and promotion from neighborhood groups. "It takes an entire community to generate enough business to support this program," Gudzune says.
The study also points to the importance of keeping produce fresher for longer. The store in Reservoir Hill, which kept the fruits and vegetables refrigerated, discarded only 9 percent of the food. The Belair-Edison store, which didn't use a fridge, got rid of 33 percent due to spoilage.
The pilot project—for which Gudzune won the grand prize in the Urbanite Magazine Healthy Food Challenge in 2012—lasted nine weeks. The project funded the produce for the first five weeks, before the store owners picked up the costs.
In the collaborative model researchers laid out, the urban farmers not only delivered the food, but also assisted the store owners with proper storage and display.
"I think it's an interesting model and fits our mission really well, despite the challenges in keeping the produce fresh," says Alison Worman, manager of Whitelock Community Farm, which participated in the study. "As a community farm, we focus on being part of our neighborhood greening and making fresh food accessible."Read more from Hopkins Medicine