Imagine living in a community, either here or abroad, without easy access to fresh food. It could be in a city with no ready transportation to a market within a mile, or it could be in the country where the nearest grocery store is a 20-30 minute drive away. Welcome to a food desert. Millions of Americans share this fate. Is there anything we can do to create oases in these deserts? There don’t appear to be any simple solutions to this dilemma, but it seems to me that rather than completely redesigning the current food system, it is more likely that the current one could be made more equitable.
Corner stores have been proposed as a possible solution. They are defined as “[s]mall, usually independent stores that do not sell gas. Examples can be convenience stores, general merchandise stores, and pharmacies” (1). The name comes from small stores in inner cities “a small shop, usually on the corner of a street, that sells mainly food and household goods.” Since corner stores are found in locations that do not have a supermarket, they have been suggested as an alternative vehicle to make whole, fresh foods available to local residents. The advantages of such stores include their location and shopping demographic. The disadvantage is that they tend to sell food high in sugar, salt and fat. They also encounter challenges in ordering, handling, managing, storing and maintaining quality of perishable items.
Managing perishable products like fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats is not a simple task. One reason processed products high in sugar and/or salt are so prevalent is that they are much easier to produce, ship, handle, store, stock and sell than fresh, whole foods. A can of soda, snack cake or bag of chips can generally take more rough handling and temperature variation than a fresh food. This week I look at the challenges faced by personnel of small stores whose primary business is not food in providing access to perishable items. What are the modifications needed at these stores to improve access to whole foods for low-income families?
Inventory management is a critical factor in the success or failure of fresh food. Discarded or damaged food is known as shrink or shrinkage. Fresh meat and produce are generally profit centers of a supermarket. Failure to consistently be a profit center could jeopardize the manager’s job or store’s viability. A balance must be maintained to ensure that enough items are on display during store hours while minimizing the amount of food that must be reduced in price or discarded when it becomes unsalable at full price. Such a balance is maintained by the manager by proper ordering, knowing what days of the week will be peak or slack purchase days, and discounting items for quick sale before they become unacceptable.
Stores that sell large amounts of fresh food may get several deliveries a week, but those with lower sales may only receive one delivery a week. Consumer demand for certain items may vary by season and time of year. If there is not enough of a fresh item available in the warehouse, the amount of that specific food shipped may be lower than the amount ordered. In contrast, more of that item than was ordered may be delivered and billed to reduce inventory at the warehouse. Too little of an item on display at a given time generally leads to a price increase. Too much may lead to special sales.
Storage and display of perishable foods is critical. Most grocery stores/supermarkets have limited refrigerated storage space. Meats have very short shelf lives and must be moved in a matter of a few days to prevent spoilage. Not all fruits and vegetables should be refrigerated. Proper stock rotation from the back room to the display area is also critical. Fresh items are likely to deteriorate more rapidly under the bright lights and lack of temperature control in the display area. Leafy vegetables are likely to wilt quickly if not maintained on ice or frequently misted. The manager must keep the display area full of food to attract the consumer. When items are brought out from storage, it is important that the older items are not forgotten back there and perish in the back room.
Food waste continues to play a critical role on how we look at food distribution. Shrinkage is not only important for store profitability and the ability for a manager to keep the job. Anna Zeide documents how supermarkets increased food waste for perishable foods as they became a more permanent presence in the American landscape (2). Food waste also has an environmental cost associated with it. The closer to the market the waste occurs the greater the waste of resources is incurred. Processing of perishable foods extends shelf life of that food making it a more sustainable way unless the food is wasted in the home.
Fresh fruits and vegetables provide a particular challenge for any store that does not have at least one person whose sole responsibility is the produce section. Unlike most processed, packaged foods, fresh fruits and vegetables perish rapidly even when refrigerated. Even most frozen and refrigerated processed foods have predictable shelf lives when held at appropriate temperatures. Fresh fruits and vegetables must be displayed properly to facilitate sales. A soda can be shipped at ambient temperatures and stored in a refrigerated case behind glass doors without jeopardizing its salability. Shoppers are less likely to open a door to grab a stalk of kale or ripe apple, however.
Not all fresh produce should be stored at refrigerated temperatures. Some items like fresh tomatoes and bananas are chilling sensitive such that they deteriorate more rapidly in the refrigerator than at room temperature. Other items like greens are likely to wilt if stored at low relative humidity. Misting units are used in many supermarkets to help slow wilting. Some fresh items like broccoli, kiwifruit and lettuce are sensitive to ethylene, a chemical naturally generated by fruits such as apples, bananas, peaches and pears. Storing ethylene producers close to ethylene-sensitive items will lead to premature loss of quality of sensitive items and increased food waste. Periodic removal of unsalable fruits or vegetables will help increase the marketability of the remaining items. Some fruits like melons can be cut up in a back room once their appearance starts showing its age. Many large supermarkets tend to have limited space for cutting up fruit under sanitary conditions, however.
Meats are also perishable items that require attention, preferably by an employee who has meat as a sole responsibility. Small stores are unlikely to have a butcher on the premises. Even many large supermarkets also have no butcher. These stores display items that were prepackaged at a large manufacturing facility away from the store. Even large stores that sell only prepackaged meats need personnel with some level of training and expertise to ensure proper display and rotation or excess waste will occur. With red meats like beef, color is important. Store lighting can lead to more rapid changes from red to brown decreasing salability even if the meat is still perfectly safe and edible. Some chains treat their fresh beef with carbon monoxide to keep the red color stable for longer periods of time. Such a practice is controversial and may extend the visual life of the cut beyond the time it is of acceptable flavor quality.
Fresh items of poultry will last longer if stored at temperatures just below freezing, but sometimes the meat contains ice crystals. Such practices turn off consumers but generally extend shelf life, keeping the item safe longer with little or no loss in flavor. Fresh fish tends to be more perishable than red meat or poultry. Maintaining fish and other seafood generally requires holding at low temperatures on ice to keep it fresh a little longer, but a rapid turnover is necessary to maintain flavor and slow development of off -odors. Safety is more of a concern in raw meat than raw produce as raw meat is generally loaded with harmful microbes. Fortunately, most meat is cooked before eating to make it safe. It is crucial that raw meats be handled and displayed in different parts of the store because of concerns for cross-contamination—contaminated meats coming in contact with cooked meats or fresh produce, particularly if the produce will not be cooked.
Finally, many consumers associate spoilage with unsafe foods. Unfortunately, the two are not always related. A spoiled food may be safe to eat, although I do not recommend it. More dangerous are those foods which show no signs of spoilage but are unsafe. It is hard for even an experienced food scientist to determine whether a particular food is safe or unsafe without conducting laboratory tests. It is thus necessary to keep meats in a cold chain all the way from the slaughterhouse to and while in the store and at home.
Supermarkets and corner stores have been suggested as the best mechanisms to overcome food deserts. Since some definitions of a food desert include the absence of a supermarket, bringing one to affected areas would seem to be the most obvious solution. A supermarket meets all the criteria described above with full-time employees devoted to areas of the store providing whole foods. In the produce and meat sections there is at least one person responsible for ordering, stocking, display, repackaging, and discarding fruits and vegetables. Refrigeration of beer, soda and similar nonperishable items requires much less attention than produce and meats. As we saw in Black Food Geographies, however, presence of an unSafeway in the neighborhood that doesn’t meet the needs of its residents is not a realistic solution. Could corner stores fill the void where functional supermarkets will not go? Possibly, but they must be equipped to manage and handle perishable foods.
Next week: Dollar stores—friend or enemy in providing food access to low-income areas
(1) Identifying corner stores as the future of healthy food access in African American communities. Victor Romano, Jennifer Lee, Elliot Royal, Katherine Metzo, William Ruth, Thomas Harstsook, 2017, Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice 10(1):206-220.
(2) Grocery garbage: food waste and the rise of supermarkets in the mid-twentieth century United States. Anna Zeide,2019, History of Retailing and Consumption, 5(1): 71-86 DOI: 1080/ .2019.1589860