The crowd of a few dozen people that spilled off the sidewalk at Lee’s Market on an overcast morning had gathered to celebrate. The occasion: the grand re-opening of the corner store with new offerings of fresh fruit, vegetables and an expanded selection of healthy grocery items.
The January 24 event marked the launch of the Healthy Corner Store project of the Southeast Food Access Working Group (SEFA). The community group’s Food Guardians, three staff members who work on a variety of food issues in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, collaborated with the owners of Lee’s Market and Ford’s Grocery to increase the number of healthy products sold at each store. The initiative was inspired by a 2007 survey showing that residents were taking dollars outside of the community when they frequently traveled to other neighborhoods to buy groceries. SEFA believed that if those items were stocked in neighborhood retail locations, the local businesses would see increased sales and residents would have more convenient access to healthy food.
The change at Lee’s Market was clear and prominent. Limes, oranges and heads of lettuce were visible through the door. Oatmeal, bread and tortillas were on display in the front window. And while ramen noodles, candy bars and alcohol still had significant shelf space, tobacco advertising on the front door had been removed and the difference between the before-and-after photos on display at the launch event was striking.
The participation of the corner store business owners is a credit to their willingness to try out a new set of products, including perishables. In making the change, they received assistance from a coalition of city agencies and community groups. In addition to the outreach by Food Guardians, several city agencies — acting together under the umbrella of the Bayview Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Zone and funded by a large grant from Kaiser Permanente — provided a mix of grants and loans to the two corner markets to cover the costs of technical assistance and equipment purchase. Initial signs indicates that the storeowner’s investment is paying off. One of the most important measures of success is whether customers will buy the new items. In the first week of offering produce, Lee’s Market sold out and placed another order with its produce distributor.
One of the distinguishing features of this initiative is its focus on working with resources already in the community rather than trying to recruit a retailer to move into the neighborhood. As one of the speakers at the launch put it, the project was an example of “change from the inside out.” While SEFA was involved in attracting full-scale grocer Fresh & Easy to the neighborhood, it has also focused significant attention on changing the offerings at existing retailers like Foods Co., Super Save and now corners stores. Other groups in the city are watching closely. Organizers in the Tenderloin have begun their own neighborhood assessment using the Food Guardian’s model and Supervisor Eric Mar has introduced legislation referencing SEFA’s work.
SEFA plans to evaluate the impact of its corner store initiative. While increasing access to fresh, healthy food is a clear improvement in terms of convenience and quality of life, the impact of this initiative, and others like it, in terms of affecting obesity, diabetes and other public health issues is not yet proven. Even so, it is clear that positive change, driven from within the neighborhood, is happening at two corner stores. And that is a milestone worth celebrating.