The Urban Dilemma

Can a New York program offering healthy options to inner-city clientele catch on?

NEW YORK CITY -- For the 52% of African-Americans who live in the central city of a metropolitan area, the convenience store is often their only source of groceries. But is it a good source?

In 2004, research by Brigham& Women's Hospital in Boston connected the high rate of obesity among blacks with the large number of fast-food outlets and c-stores in urban areas.

And this January, The New York Times reported on a study by New York City's Health& Mental Hygiene Department, which found that 80% of the food stores in several [image-nocss] low-income neighborhoods were bodegas, and only one-third of them sold reduced-fat milk, 21% sold apples, oranges and bananas, and only 6% sold leafy green vegetables. And, when healthy food was available, the bodegas charged significantly more for it than area supermarkets.

The findings gave birth to a New York City program that offers customers discounts on low-fat milk and possibly fruits and vegetables, the Times reported, but gives no financial incentive to the bodegas. Despite this, more than two-dozen businesses have signed up for the program.

Is there a greater opportunity here for convenience retailers in urban areas? Perhaps, but it has to start with greater education on both sides of the counter.

Before [c-stores] could start offering more healthy substitutes to any products, there has to be an educational process first that's undertaken to really inform the community on why they need to take health more seriously and why they need to change their eating habits, said Joseph Anthony, president of Vital Marketing, a New York City-based marketing group that specializes in ethnic consumers. Anthony notes that many people who have grown up in urban settings have been socially conditioned to expectand seek outpreserved, packaged and otherwise less-than-fresh offerings.

Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS), agrees. I think the key to all of this is not perhaps so much what the stores offer for sale, but what the consumer wants to buy, said Calvin, who had not yet read of the New York City program. The education programs that are ongoing at the federal, state and local levels need to continue, and as awareness grows of the need to eat well and stay physically fit, and to eat the right foods, then the demand for better-for-you products is going to drive store inventories.

At the same time, Anthony sees room for education among urban retailers and acknowledgement of the vital role they play in their communities.

The reason why these c-stores have thrived for so long within intercity communities is because they have figured out a good way to cater to their multicultural consumer base, and I think that the problem is they've gotten in too much of a comfort zone and are not breaking out of it for the good of the overall community, said Anthony.

However, despite the initial positive response from two dozen bodega operators participating in the New York City program, Anthony and Calvin contend that a business incentive will have to be offered for the industry as a whole to embrace a healthier offering at urban stores.

None of these bodegas are in the philanthropic business, Anthony said. You've got to offer these bodegas some incentives on purchasing volumes of products at a more competitive wholesale price, so they can push it because they're going to make a bigger margin on it when consumers buy it.

[For more on how convenience retailers can meet the needs of the African-American demographic, watch for the March issue of CSP magazine.]