The Secret to Reviving America’s Corner Stores

Brianna Sandoval has developed a proven model for bringing healthy food to neighborhood markets.

Brianna Sandoval at the Natural Resources Defense Council's Growing Green awards. (Photo: NRDC)

Twilight Greenaway is an Oakland-based writer and editor who has been working on the web since 2000.

In recent years there has been no shortage of efforts to install fresh produce and other healthful options in urban corner stores. But here’s the catch: These programs rarely have a lasting impact.

Food access organizations often approach corner store owners with enthusiasm and high hopes for introducing healthier foods, only to lose funding, spread themselves too thin, or ask too much of store owners. As a result, lettuce often wilts, bananas turn brown, and proprietors become disenchanted; after all, they have to make a profit.

When someone does it right, it’s worth paying attention. Enter Brianna Almaguer Sandoval, 30, of the The Food Trust’s  Healthy Corner Store Initiative in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sandoval, who started working on the project alone and now works with a team of 12, has successfully built lasting relationships with hundreds of corner store owners, and introduced thousands of new products—real, healthy food—in businesses once seen as junk food pit-stops.

You could say Sandoval has figured out the secret sauce to “corner store conversion.” And that explains why the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recognized the young food-justice organizer at its annual Growing Green awards earlier this month.

Sondoval began working for the Food Trust shortly after finishing a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology and a master’s in social policy. Although food access was a new area of focus for her, she’d spent a great deal of time studying immigration, and that, along with her fluent Spanish, gave her an edge when it came to working with Philly’s corner store owners—many of whom are recent immigrants.

 “Most corner store owners here are from Latin America (especially the Dominican Republic), while some are from Korea, the Middle East, and Africa,” says Sandoval.  

Of course, this is the case in most cities in America—and for good reason. “It seems like corner store ownership is a great first step for people coming into this country,” she adds.

But the flip side of that reality is that every dollar counts, there is often a language barrier, and financial risks are rarely an option. “[Corner store owners] can also be a little suspicious of outsiders coming in,” says Sandoval. “That’s one thing I’ve seen with other groups—they show up and start asking for all kinds of things without building a relationship.”  

Lucky for Sandoval, she was able to start out small, allowing her to cultivate a working rapport with the initial group of owners. “When I started in 2008, we were working in 11 stores. We started hearing from store owners about what they needed, and based on that feedback we came up with a model for change.” In 2010 the Food Trust partnered with the Philadelphia Department for Public Health and its Get Healthy Philly initiative. “That allowed us to take that model we’d developed and expand it state-wide,” Sandoval says.  Today, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative is working with over 600 stores, and they have a comprehensive system of training and support for owners.

Which goes back to the idea of building mutually supportive relationships. And the Healthy Corner Store Initiative offers owners clear incentives—from small cash investments to training, infrastructure and equipment (cold cases, shelves, etc.), signage, and help finding other resources for small businesses. The goal is to make the investment as low-risk as possible for store owners. 

The success of the Healthy Corner Store project has made it a locus of the broader movement, and Sandoval and her colleagues hear from people all over the country looking to re-create what they’ve done. “We know of a couple hundred groups working on corner store efforts, and Food Trust is working with about 20 of those communities—including projects in New York, Massachusetts, Delaware, Louisiana, Colorado, and California,” says Sandoval.

If these projects take off, and make a lasting series of changes in their communities, it could lead to a significant expansion of the definition of the American corner store.

Or maybe a return to the original ideal is more accurate. In their early days, corner stores were essentially small, ultra-local grocery stores where neighbors went to pick up basic staples. By displacing some of the Hot Cheetos and Hostess cupcakes with real groceries like carrots, apples, bread, and yogurt, Sandoval hopes to bring these important places back to their roots.

After five years in the corner store conversion game, this young organizer still brings a great deal of optimism to her work. “People see these stores as where to go to get junk. We’re trying to change their perceptions of what a corner store is.”

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