Seeing Green in Detroit Corner Stores

DETROIT — Inner city party stores are better known for their bulletproof cashier booths, coolers of malt liquor “forties,” and displays of chips than their fresh produce. But Detroit FRESH: The Healthy Corner Store Project has been working to change that image.

With 20 retailers on board, mostly in Detroit’s eastside, Detroit FRESH provides equipment and supplies, marketing support, technical assistance and distribution resources to corner stores so they can stock fresh produce. According to Kami Pothukuchi, director of SEED Wayne and associate professor of urban planning at Wayne State University, this isn’t an easy sell when the highest profits come from lottery tickets, alcohol, cigarettes and junk food.

“It takes a lot of work, and produce doesn’t help their bottom line,” says Pothukuchi. “They’re doing it as a service.”

But it’s that service – and Detroit FRESH staffers reminding store owners that they disserve their community by primarily selling addictions – that have some proprietors signing on to the program.

Detroit FRESH makes the case to store owners that if they demonstrate to neighbors an interest in residents’ welfare, they might get more business. Pothukuchi describes the pitch: “Look, you’re already here, you know how to make money in this neighborhood, and you’re selling things that are creating health problems. Why can’t you provide something that at least balances those other items? Then your reputation will improve.”

Residents, in turn, are making an effort to support those stores, notes Pothukuchi. The program’s outreach component helps. After Detroit FRESH helps the store start stocking produce – equipping them with shelves and baskets and providing merchandising help – neighbors are informed about the change.

Program staff and volunteers reach out a few blocks in all directions of the participating store to regularly inform and remind residents and neighborhood organizations about the availability of produce. Outreach workers also talk to neighbors about their impressions of the store and if they see it as a destination for produce; residents are encouraged to ask store owners to supply healthy items they would like to buy.

Detroit FRESH began in 2008, with SEED Wayne and Capuchin Soup Kitchen hosting conversations with eastside residents about how they perceived their food environment. Emerging as a major issue was the importance of the corner store and its service to the community. Within that discussion, a dominant theme was disappointment and resentment about the types of items stores were selling, like tobacco, alcohol and soda, recalls Pothukuchi.

From this conversation, Detroit FRESH: The Healthy Corner Store Project was piloted to address the gap in healthy food sources for low-income households. Out of the initial pilot, three stores agreed to participate, and the program has grown with grant funding since then. Detroit FRESH is implemented by SEED Wayne in partnership with the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, Eastern Market Corporation, and MOSES.

For some Detroit neighborhoods, Detroit FRESH is making a small dent in access to healthy food for local residents with limited resources and sometimes no transportation. But it’s just beginning of a long climb.

Detroit Fresh image courtesy of SEED Wayne“In Detroit right now, especially on the eastside, given trends in loss of population and wealth and given that schools are closing, neighborhood organizations are having a hard time keeping their staff, and churches are having a hard time, just to focus on corner stores isn’t going to help create that dynamic of equity,” says Pothukuchi. “The corner store will help you take one step forward, but the neighborhood as a whole is taking two steps back because of the economy.”

Accountability for stores is also an issue. Pothukuchi says that many stores with WIC contracts, for example, are required to carry two types of fresh fruits and two of vegetables, but many carry none because WIC has no capacity to enforce the contracts.

Detroit FRESH wants to approach these stores and offer to help them, rather than report them. Groups like the Detroit Food Policy Council, formed in 2009 to shape food policy and work toward a more localized, just and environmentally friendly food system, are working to create policies for stores that earn money from Detroiters to be more accountable to residents by carrying healthy products.

Despite the roadblocks, corner stores carrying fresh produce illustrates the potential of small change in helping to bring neighbors and business owners together to improve health in the community, create an atmosphere of mutual respect, and encourage honest conversations.

As the population stabilizes, and struggling corner stores see a future outlook that is more stable, hopefully more stores will join Detroit FRESH. Pothukuchi has noticed that in the few Detroit neighborhoods gaining population, corner stores are doing very well.

Detroit FRESH may be a small step in the right direction, but it’s a step. Says Pothukuchi, “Really, it’s a way to help people to make last minute purchase decisions that are healthier. If they’re buying a bag of chips or candy, this gives them the opportunity to buy a healthier snack, like an apple or banana.”

How to help: Support healthy eating habits of young people and adults and discourage spending, whether with cash or food stamps, on pop or junk food.


Interested in volunteering? Visit the Detroit FRESH website for more information; the program needs outreach volunteers who live in Detroit neighborhoods.

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