Food insecurity – defined as limited access to affordable, nutritious food – is a growing problem in the United States. It tends to be particularly high in low-income urban areas where car ownership is low and supermarkets are rare. The small food stores that do exist in underserved areas are often filled with high-fat, high-sugar foods in part because “junk” food is relatively easy to stock and usually sells well in small food stores. On the other hand, fresh produce for these stores is expensive to stock, difficult to get in the small quantities, spoils easily, and often doesn’t sell. These problems have been documented in numerous scientific and popular articles. Given that diet-related health issues are much more prevalent in lower-income communities in the United States, corner store conditions and general food insecurity are major public health and social justice issues.
In 2009, the Minneapolis Health Department began the Minneapolis Healthy Corner Store Program to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to small businesses in poor Minneapolis neighborhoods. One main challenge for this program has been the lack of a distribution system to provide store owners with produce that they can sell at a profit. Produce distributors generally don’t service corner stores in poor neighborhoods because the low sales volume and other complications makes it unprofitable. To stock their shelves, corner store owners often buy produce at grocery stores and restaurant wholesale suppliers and then resell it at higher prices. That takes time and money, and the result is second-hand produce for sale at high prices in a challenging sales environment.
This summer, the University of St. Thomas Stewardship Science program and several community partners are piloting a new produce distribution model to help address this issue. Our goal is to create an economically viable delivery system that brings to corner stores low-cost, high-quality produce in small quantities. It’s a significant challenge. Our partners are Nora Hoeft (Minneapolis Health Department), Kevin Hannigan (Fields of Joy, a local food and beverage distribution business), and Collie Graddick (Community Table Co-op). Kevin has extensive experience in produce distribution through his operation Fields of Joy, and has family connections to J & J Distributing – a major regional produce distributor. Collie’s organization, Community Table, supports entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities area wanting to farm and start businesses that contribute to a local food system. Carly Dent, a UST student majoring in Environmental Studies and Psychology, is Head of Distribution and Sales. She is also working to assess the impact of the program on stores and their customers, and mentors two interns (Adam Pruitt and Dede Fuller) from Community Table. Adam and Dede are part of the distribution team that delivers to corner stores once a week. We’re calling this venture BrightSide Produce Distribution.
Our pilot project is to establish a workable distribution system for 10 corner stores in Minneapolis. We buy produce in small quantities from J & J; Kevin uses his connections and knowledge to find us low-price, high-quality produce items that will sell in corner stores. Adam P., Dede, and Carly make deliveries and handle all of the interactions with store owners. We allow owners to buy any quantity they want, and we try to at least match any price they can get at other locations. At the end of the day, we sell our extra produce to another partner, UST Dining Services. We then keep track of all sales and examine how the distribution affects the availability and quality of produce in our stores. We will eventually present the results to the academic community. In the future, we will expand the number of stores in our program, and incorporate fresh, local produce from Community Table into the distribution network. We will also partner with classes throughout the University of St. Thomas to explore how programs in nutrition, marketing, business training, etc. influence outcomes in stores and the surrounding community. In short, we will have the corner store project enrich a vast array of academic experiences at UST, and we will use the academic experiences to provide logistic and structural support to the distribution network to ensure its economic viability.
Will this work? We don’t know. The initial phase of distribution has brought elements of surprise and spontaneity, but that keeps our work exciting. Everyone has something to gain from this undertaking: the collaborators, the store owners and customers, the local communities, and UST. We hope BrightSide Produce Distribution will have a broad influence and help provide food justice for future generations in the Twin Cities.