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Foodservice

C-Stores Are the Key to Eliminating Food Deserts

Partnership for a Healthier America offers retailers a model for remaking the industry’s food image
Photograph courtesy of Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA)

WASHINGTON — Since 2014, when Kwik Trip became the first convenience-store operator to join with the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), a nonprofit that aims to increase access to healthier food, there have been eight more c-store chains that have joined the initiative: Ricker’s, Maverik, Twice Daily, Enmarket, Sheetz, Loop Neighborhood Markets, Cumberland Farms and Aloha Island Markets.

  • Click here for a look at how La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip built a healthy food culture through PHA.

“We never realized that a possible solution was literally sitting right on the corner: convenience stores,” said Nancy Roman, president and CEO of PHA, Washington, D.C. The group had been exploring ways to battle food deserts for five years. In such areas, residents lack access to affordable produce, whole grains and other mainstays of a healthful diet. Then she heard an amazing statistic: 160 million people shop in c-stores every day, according to NACS. That was when the lightbulb went on.

“The sheer reach and access is unparalleled and could be the key to fresher and healthier food options being made available to the 41.2 million people who live in food-insecure households,” Roman said in a blog post on PHA’s website.

Five years into its partnership with c-stores, PHA is still working to better understand the c-store industry landscape, said Amy Slechta, manager of partnerships for PHA.

Many c-store operators are chasing the healthy eating trend, despite the fact that consumers overall do not consider the channel a source of healthful food. About 10% of consumers who say they’re visiting new health-food destinations go to c-stores for wholesome items, according to Technomic’s 2018 U.S. Heathy Eating Consumer Trend Report. Also, 53% of consumers said they would visit c-stores more often if they offered healthier foods, according to PHA.

“It used to be that c-stores didn’t care about better-for-you-options, but that’s changed,” Roman said during the 2019 PHA Summit in Chicago. “C-stores have somewhat of an edge: They’ve got brick-and-mortars, more points of location and more points of opportunity to effect big change.”

Many of the nonprofit’s c-store programs revolve around consumers’ quick visits, such as providing portable and grab-and-go options and building consumer awareness that these items are available in c-stores, she said.

“Customers get in and out fast, so we work with c-stores on how to market and promote these items to consumers, so they know healthy options are available,” she said.

Educating operators and employees is a challenge PHA faces with every c-store partner, Slechta said. To address this, the nonprofit provides nutrition expertise and assesses the healthfulness of each store’s product selection. PHA also provides c-store partners with an online calculator, which gives operators, employees and consumers nutritional information for any product. For smaller stores, PHA also hosts a corner store forum, which brings c-store partners and public health companies together to share best practices regarding healthy eating. PHA can also help smaller operators find distributors for fresh produce if needed, Slechta said.

“Our national and regional distributor partners also work with many of our c-store partners to provide those fresh options,” she said. While PHA tailors its framework differently for each chain based on factors such as regionality, consumer demographic and overall profitability, it applies fundamental tactics to all stores. These include stocking at least eight fruits and vegetables, although that varies by store—the organization tweaks a store’s prepared foods and grab-and-go items and requires a minimum number of product promotions, said Slechta. Participants pay a program management fee that covers critical functions such as third-party verification, legal services, technical assistance from trained staff, digital engagement (social, web, annual progress report) and the right to use a PHA Proud Partner logo. The fee is based on the size of the company and the particulars of the partnership, Slechta said.

Each store has a baseline before they sign on, and we set goals for them over a two- to three-year period,” she said. “Each year, the stores report on their progress, which we

“It used to be that c-stores didn’t care about better-for-you options, but that’s changed.”

confirm through third-party verifiers.” PHA also offers retailers merchandising tips and best practices to maximize sales of healthy items. The more front and center these items are, the more awareness they build among consumers, leading to more sales, Slechta said.

“C-stores have told us healthier items are selling once customers become aware of them,” she said. “Placing [healthy items] at the register or near the entrance, or having signage to call attention, can help increase awareness and make customers likely to purchase.”

PHA also partners with c-store suppliers. Today, that includes six c-store distributors: Core-Mark, South San Francisco, Calif., McLane Co., Temple, Texas, Harbor Wholesale Foods (HWF), Lacey, Wash., Harold Levinson Associates, Farmingdale, N.Y., S. Abraham & Sons, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Esstar, Nashville, Tenn.

PHA’s partnerships with c-store distributors have contributed to c-stores’ success with the initiative, said Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic initiatives for NACS, Alexandria, Va. “It’s one of the best things we’ve seen,” he said. “Half of the c-store industry is serviced by one of the six distributors who signed with PHA. [The distributors] have ideas, they have learnings, and they can help you look at how to sell these items in stores.”

One of those ways is by stocking healthy items in nontraditional areas, Lenard said. Open-air coolers are essential for this, because they display a varied product mix in one area, ranging from salty snacks to packaged vegetables. Limiting healthy items to a dedicated section does not match up with how today’s customers shop, he said.

But bringing a health-based culture into c-stores hasn’t come without its challenges. The biggest hurdle here has been informing consumers that c-stores now have these options, Lenard said.

“Folks in the nutrition community question why this isn’t happening faster,” he said. “We try to bridge that gap by saying, ‘Here are the issues retailers face, and here’s how we can do it quicker’.”

Part of bridging that gap includes making a game plan for how retailers will roll out these items. This includes blueprints for marketing, merchandising and, in regions that lack food resources, working with the right food banks. Building the awareness requires repeating these steps over time, Lenard said.

“Just because you start selling produce in a store doesn’t mean you’re going to be selling produce in a store,” he said. “It takes repetition. It takes messaging.”

PHA partnerships with c-stores is gaining traction. Two years ago, bottled water became the top c-store beverage for the first time, according to PHA’s numbers—a big moment for the initiative, Slechta said. And in April 2019, PHA named NACS as its Partner of the Year for its commitment to fighting obesity in the c-store channel.

“The award was a recognition of what the c-store industry has done and can do,” Lenard said. “[It was] a recognition of how the c-store industry is committed to evolving and committed to our communities.”

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