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Greening the liquor store: a national network of organizations is trying to bring healthier food choices to the ubiquitous liquor stores in poor neighborhoods. But converting is hard to do.

At first glance, School Market looks like your typical corner store. It sells beer; it's located near the free-way; the neighborhood is multiracial and troubled by drug dealing; and the nearest supermarket is half a mile away. Like most corner stores, School Market has depended on the sale of alcohol (mostly beer and wine) and tobacco for the bulk of its income, while also supplementing sales with convenience food and snacks.

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But School Market is a bit different. Five years ago, the California Food Policy Advocates, an anti-poverty program that lobbies for increasing food access among poor people, approached the store's owner, Faiz Tom Ahmed, with a proposition. They would give him some technical assistance if he would sell produce. It is a process known as "greening," and Ahmed agreed to be part of a pilot project that the organization was running in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California.

The owner, known affectionately in the neighborhood as Ahmed, was hopeful. A 50-year-old Yemeni immigrant and the father of seven children, he agreed that greening might be good for business. "I started working with them because sometimes business is up and down so I try anything different to change it," he says. "And Nathan [the consultant] stayed with me for a week to show me how to take care of vegetables, and I learned fast."

The store is part of local and national efforts at turning corner stores into sources of produce and nutritious foods for poor communities of color. But greening is not easy. School Market, like many corner stores, has fallen prey to drug dealers in the past five years. In January, it was robbed. And the food access organization that helped the store convert to produce has not followed up with Ahmed.

"The School Street Project was supposed to increase access to food in the community," says Anaa Reese, a nutrition policy administrator at the Alameda County Department of Public Health who worked on the conversion of School Market. "But if there isn't enough support in the community to do that, it's not going to work. You have to work with the store owners for a long period of time on how to maintain the market and display their goods."

What happened at School Market raises some important questions about how fresh produce and healthy foods can be sold in poor communities of color.

Minding the Store

For the Ahmeds, as for countless others, running corner stores is a family business. Ahmed immigrated to the United States in 1974 with his father, who operated a store in Washington. Working on California farms, Ahmed saved his earnings, and in 1982 he bought the School Market. The 1,300-square-foot store sits in Fruitvale, a now rapidly gentrifying section in Oakland. A few years after making the purchase, Ahmed decided, at the request of customers, to obtain a beer, wine and distilled spirits license. He quickly became a fixture in the neighborhood. His wife and children, including his youngest, seven-year-old Islam, help him at the store, which opens at seven in the morning and closes at 9:30 p.m.

Ahmed was an ideal storeowner for a greening project. Alameda County and the California Food Policy Advocates gave him technical assistance, training, equipment and mentoring. A consultant, Nathan Chang, was hired to work with Ahmed at reorganizing the interior of the store and making efficient use of space, display of foods and beverage storage. Ahmed also received a produce refrigerator. The store was repainted and Plexiglas installed so customers could see the produce and hopefully feel enticed to enter.

All told, the program lasted a year. The organization issued its report, and there was no follow-up.

Last summer, drug dealers began hanging out at Ahmed's store after the city began to actively monitor a nearby drug house. Many of his regular customers stopped coming. Those who did come to shop at the store were purchasing alcohol and loitering outside. Last October, local residents complained to city hall about the drug dealing, and city officials issued a nuisance abatement order for School Market. The City Administrator assigned a lawyer from Neighborhood Law Corps, a nonprofit community lawyering program, to work with Ahmed to deter the drug dealing and crime that was happening outside his store.

"It bothered me a little bit, people telling me what to do," said Ahmed, "because some times I don't have the money to fix it."

Laura Blair, an attorney with Neighborhood Law Corps, and Raquel Contreras, a storefront graphic designer contracted by the city, made recommendations to increase lighting, install security cameras and add more windows so there was increased visibility both into and outside the store. "We used Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design recommendations," said Contreras, "which the Oakland Police had already recommended, like suggesting that he have clear windows so that he would have 100% visibility. He also had a big refrigerator, and he was encouraged to move it to the side and to add cameras outside his store."

Ahmed agreed to everything that was recommended by the city, and because he was located in a redevelopment zone he was eligible for a facade improvement grant that paid for half of the expenses. And so Ahmed installed two large windows and removed the iron bars from his other six windows and made his store entirely visible from the outside. The windows alone cost $3,400, and to date Ahmed has spent $13,000, for which he says the city has yet to reimburse him. His aisles were made perpendicular to the windows so that any passerby can see the activity in the store, and he installed three surveillance cameras. Those three cameras were broken with a shovel during a burglary in January.

Even after the burglary, Ahmed remains optimistic and hopeful about the greening of his store as a step in the right direction. "The neighbors, they buy tomatoes, bananas, apples. They buy the food. Sometimes I lose money, but I don't sell much liquor in this place no more."

It Takes a Village to Convert

Ultimately, what the experience of the School Market may show is that it takes a village to convert a corner store, and even then it might not be enough. "If you're a proprietor and someone says they want to help you," says Chang, "and they say they'll pay for it, of course, you're going to say yes. It's a sexy concept. But once the day-to-day operations continue and there's not a lot of support, then it gets hard. That's where the public health department and other support systems need to be in place."

Critics, however, argue that there are just too many stores selling liquor, and conversion misses the point. "Conversion is a viable option for a limited number of stores," says Ed Kikumoto, community organizer for the Alcohol Policy Network in Berkeley. "The problem goes deeper. The fact of the matter is there's an over-concentration of liquor stores, and it won't work for all of them."

For many corner stores, however, the problem may not be the lack of community support for greening or the competition with other stores. In the end, many simply worry that selling food is not a viable source of income. Mary Kaaid, who owns Friendly Market in West Oakland, has tried to sell produce at her store. But she is full of doubts that it will work.

"If I thought I could pay my bills by converting to just selling food, I would do it, but I don't think I could make that kind of money to pay all my bills," Kaaid says. "In produce you lose a lot. It's not for the money. It's more for the convenience to the customers ... I've been here for 20 years, and it won't work."

Some people, however, remain optimistic, like Dana Harvey, the co-director of the West Oakland Food Collaborative, which tries to combine access to affordable, high-quality culturally appropriate food with locally based economic growth and employment in low-income areas. She hopes to create a more comprehensive approach. "What it will take is to improve the quality of life and empowerment of the residents, including more healthful choices in stores, improved aesthetic quality in low-income communities, increased access of healthful food and lifestyle choices," she says.

Harvey points to her own success with Neighbor's Market in West Oakland. She approached the store last August and proposed that they sell produce. Then slowly the store introduced more food choices like healthy snacks and organic cereals and chips. This year, the owner expressed a desire to quit selling beer and wine altogether. Harvey and the West Oakland Food Collaborative are helping him to convert by buying the refrigerators and a deli case and including the community in the process by surveying them for what products they would buy from the store.

"We have someone work with the owner and the community," says Harvey, "to identify gaps in the market and work with the owner to convert him based on what the community wants." But, Harvey also notes, the funding and the community support have to be there for a successful conversion.

Reese, the county official who worked on the School Market conversion, compares the process to dieting. "If we have fallen off the wagon with School Street it would be like a person no longer on the Atkins diet. It's a slow, long process to get people to change. There has to be a bigger purpose, not just the grocery store itself, with the conversion. It's about community empowerment and making the neighborhood involved. It's the community's responsibility. It's public health." Harvey, Cheng, Reese and others are a part of Healthy Community Stores Network, a national network created by The Food Trust in Philadelphia. The group also includes the Bronx Healthy Heart and the Institute for Sustainable Community Development in Chicago. Last August, The Food Trust and Johns Hopkins University gathered organizations working on creating healthier food choices for poor people and began to brainstorm ways to create access by greening projects, increasing food access by operating more farmers' markets and subsidizing larger supermarkets to invest in communities that are normally not recognized as financially feasible.

"The most realistic perspective to overcome some of the obstacles is to make many of these stores family-owned by families who live in and know the community," says Hannah Burton of The Food Trust, "so they can adjust to the different ethnicities in those communities, the income level and the buying practices. It's also important to link economic development and jobs to ensure that the stores operate successfully in the community through local food access and farming economies."

The campaign to convert corner stores is quite young, and experts say that one solution will not work for every community's problems with food access. "We are responsible for trying to figure out what essential businesses have to go into our community that can be sustainable," says Kikumoto, "and that will not [adversely] affect our public health."

Meanwhile, at School Market, Ahmed is optimistic. "I want to add more food, more Mexican and Chinese food. In the summer, I want to put the vegetables outside. We had a party the first time, and maybe we could do another one with the food and the kids."

Kikumoto is even more ambitious. He would love to see a deli at School Market and vegetable stands outside next to espresso machines, along with tables and chairs, making it more of a cafe and gathering place for the community. "It's a great storefront," he says. "If it was in a richer neighborhood it would be a slam dunk."

Kara Andrade is a Chips Quinn fellow for the Oakland Tribune and is a freelance writer in Oakland, CA.
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Author:Andrade, Kara
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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