When we launched our Healthy Corners program 11 years ago, we were asking small business owners for a precious commodity: trust. After more than a decade of earning and building that trust, there are now 53 DC corner stores stocking and selling healthy, affordable fruits and vegetables from DC Central Kitchen. In fact, good food has proven to be such good business for these small retailers that they are now coming together to share their own best practices for how to increase access to healthy foods in their neighborhoods.
This trust was evident when our Healthy Corners team hosted the first in-person Community of Practice meeting for participating store owners at our new headquarters, The Klein Center for Jobs and Justice, on February 16th.
For a corner store owner to leave his or her store – especially given the fact that these stores typically operate for 18 to 24 hours a day – is a major investment of time and capacity. But the chance to learn and share sales tips and effective business practices offered enough of a return on that investment that store owners asked us to facilitate that type of peer exchange, and we were happy to do it. “The goal today is for our store owners to think through the role they serve in the community and how they can work together within this network to support their neighborhoods,” said Healthy Corners Program Manager Yael Reichler.
Our Corner Store Partners touring The Klein Center for Jobs & Justice
Growing sales is a big deal, and our network of stores sold more than 370,000 units of nutritious food in 2022. Some stores have even seen their sales triple in recent years thanks to DCCK’s innovative ‘SNAP Match’ approach to helping SNAP customers increase their purchasing power when they select healthy fruits and vegetables. But for some store owners, this work is personal, too. Like Rahel Kassa, the co-owner of Aurora Market, who recalled her experience as a teenager seeking fresh food in DC after immigrating to the United States with her family.
“I was not familiar with any of the food here, except fresh produce. But I did not live by a large grocery store. I lived by corner stores, and they did not have the produce I wanted to eat, so I often went days without eating,” she said.
To break the cycle, she wanted to offer healthy products to families like hers in neighborhoods where grocery stores are either non-existent or sparse.
“When I opened Aurora Market with my husband, we wanted to replicate the fresh products one finds in European bodegas, but we had a hard time sourcing healthy, affordable produce without it perishing too quickly. The Healthy Corners program helped solve that problem, and I’m thankful for the opportunity it has given us.”
Rahel is one of many Healthy Corners store partners who offer SNAP Match coupons at their store. If a store offers our SNAP Match incentives, customers who purchase fresh or frozen products with SNAP/EBT can get more fresh or frozen produce for free by earning a $5 coupon when they spend at least $5 using SNAP/EBT. Thanks to DC Health’s generous support and increased demand from customers, the number of our corner store partners offering SNAP Match recently expanded from 18 to 30 stores.
With a 92 percent coupon redemption rate and a total of 286,383 units of fresh produce sold using our SNAP Match coupons, SNAP Match has become a vital component of these corner store owners’ operations.
“The demand for our products has grown in general because we started selling more produce when we started offering SNAP Match,” says Daweit Gebru, Owner of Elmira Market in Ward 8, “We had lost our eligibility to accept SNAP benefits for more than a decade, but the Healthy Corners team helped us get it re-instated two years ago.”
Daweit Gebru, Owner of Elmira Market in Ward 8
Apart from discussing their reasons for wanting to expand food access in their neighborhoods, store owners commented on improving neighborhood safety and debated effective strategies for enhancing advertising and marketing materials to our team members.
At the center of this discussion was Healthy Corners Program Coordinator Manouchka Bolden, a graduate of DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training program who now works closely with the store owners by facilitating SNAP Ed trainings and offering critical ideas for customer engagement, “I work with the store owners to shift the way they see things – to put them in the place of the customer to see how the food is displayed and if it is something that looks appetizing. To us, this is about more than just providing healthy food. This is about creating change and impact within the community. This is about breaking down barriers.”
One barrier to expanding food access is often breaking down old stereotypes, like that no one will buy fresh produce from a DC corner store. Or that corner store owners can’t make a profit from selling fresh produce and healthy snacks.
DCCK Chief Impact Officer Ja’Sent Brown facilitating discussion
After a morning of recounting successes and sharing ideas for improvement, our historic first in-person meeting ended with our store partners touring our new 36,000-square-foot facility, seeing first-hand how the expanded space can increase our output to 500,000 units of healthy food sold each year.
Program Manager Yael Reichler left the meeting focused on the future, remarking, “Seeing how the store owners want to support their communities and improve their store environments to keep expanding food access is eye-opening. That is the next step for us. That is the support we need from our partners now – just to keep growing with us and with the community.”
We look forward to growing the number of Healthy Corner partner stores offering essential incentives, like our SNAP Match coupon, and to hearing more insights from local business owners at our next Community of Practice meeting on May 18th.