“In a year’s time, I had gained about 75 pounds,” he says. “I got so big, customers started talking about me.”
He decided he needed to silence them; he made a New Year’s resolution to lose the pounds — by not eating at his market and to start cooking at home. “The weight,” he says, “was just coming off.”
If Singleton, 45, learned the importance of home cooking — and avoiding junk food — he couldn’t exactly translate those lessons into a business plan that made sense for Marbury Market. He had tried to sneak in healthier drinks — fruits juices and smoothies — and discovered his customers preferred their carbonated sodas with high-fructose corn syrup.
But the owner’s weight-loss story made him open to a surprise offer that came his way last year: D.C. Central Kitchen, the nonprofit dedicated to feeding and training unemployed and at-risk Washingtonians, asked Singleton to join a pilot program to introduce fresh produce to corner markets in the District’s so-called “food deserts.” The program is part of a growing national effort to increase access to healthy food. In Philadelphia, for instance, a federally funded program is placing fresh food in hundreds of corner stores in low-income neighborhoods with high obesity rates.
Central Kitchen’s “Healthy Corners” program launched in September 2011, with about 30 stores taking part, each located in a low-income neighborhood that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated a food desert, because at least a third of its residents live more than a mile away from a large grocery store. Healthy Corners was designed to overcome at least two major obstacles that keep fresh produce out of bodegas: Retailers think the fruits and vegetables are too expensive and too hard to sell, and distributors don’t see the value of delivering small orders to these tiny neighborhood stores.
Michael F. Curtin Jr., chief executive of D.C. Central Kitchen, calls it a “vicious cycle” that has kept poor neighborhoods hooked on empty calories, a reminder that food security is not just about access to food — but access to good food. With initial funding from the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development, Healthy Corners was able not only to supply corner stores with modest refrigeration units, but also to serve as a small-scale distributor, buying produce in bulk and then breaking the fruits and veggies into small orders for delivery.
But more important, Curtin says, Healthy Corners has eased these small retailers into the program by subsidizing the produce for several months before charging full wholesale prices. The slow phase-in period allows store owners to figure out what their customers want, so that when D.C. Central Kitchen starts charging full price, retailers can cater their weekly orders to match consumer demand. This, in part, explains why 27 of the original 30 pilot stores continue to take part in Healthy Corners.