“Stores that carry a limited variety of food may be more receptive to stocking healthier food than previously thought,” according to a study published in the November issue of Health Affairs.
Researchers who looked at the types of foods stocked in corner stores, convenience stores, behind glass stores and supermarkets in Baltimore in 2006 and 2012 found that overall healthy food availability increased slightly, but significantly. The average increase was roughly equivalent to stores selling at least one additional type of healthy food or an increase in the number of types of fruit or vegetables stocked from one-10 to 11-20.
Notably, “corner stores saw the greatest increase in health food availability, while chain convenience stores saw a non-significant decrease,” according to the study.
This nuanced difference suggests corner stores are to convenience stores as startups are to large, national brands, which is to say they are more nimble and responsive to consumer demand. It also suggests convenient, healthy food and beverage brands could reach out to corner stores for placement, although given that many are independently owned this could cause some distribution challenges.
The finding also casts doubt on the widely-held belief that the only way to improve access to healthy food is through construction of supermarkets, which can be resource intensive and difficult to manage in tightly packed urban environments.
The study also found the racial make up of the population surrounding the stores influenced the quantity of healthy foods available.
Specifically, if found: “Stores in majority black neighborhoods saw greater increases in health food availability compared to stores in neighborhoods with more than 60 percent white residents.”
This trend “is encouraging in light of documented racial disparities in access to healthy food and the higher prevalence of diet-related disease among blacks,” said the researchers, led by Laura Cobb, a recent DrPH recipient at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Public policy is driving change
The small but significant increase in the health foods sold at corner stores likely stems from a 2009 policy change that attempted to bring the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants and Children better in line with the Dietary Guidelines for American, the research suggests.
“As part of the policy change, stores authorized to accept WIC benefits were required to stock additional healthy foods,” such as, in Maryland, low-fat milk, whole-wheat cereals, whole grains and fruit, the study notes.
“We found that the policy change was associated with a statistically significant increase in the availability of WIC-subsidized foods,” the study notes. “In addition, WIC itself may have had a positive impact on healthy food availability: Stores that were newly authorized to accept WIC benefits between the two audits had a significant increase in WIC-relevant food items above what would have been expected from the policy change alone.”
Meeting WIC standards and supplying fresh, healthier foods posed several challenges that corner and convenience stores needed to overcome and with which many still likely struggle. Main barriers include difficulty stocking perishable goods, obtaining the food from suppliers and generating consumer demand.
A distribution opportunity for healthy brands
As these stores continue to overcome these challenges and expand their healthy options, they could become a fertile ground for increased distribution of better-for-you foods as well as conveniently packed fresh produce.
For example, Ready Pac’s new line of Ready Snax Trays and Cups and pre-made salad bowls could be well positioned to enter the stores as a convenient, healthy option and in doing so reach a wider range of consumers.
The firm's CEO Tony Sarsam recently told FoodNavigator-USA that he wants “to crack some of the barriers in fresh food deserts,” which could include working with convenience stores.
“C-stores are notable food deserts … but getting a prepared salad to their customers is not something that has been easy to do. So part of our strategy is finding a way to make the drop economics work so we can get the product into the stores so it is fresh” at the time consumers are there, he said.