“They have good-quality fruits and vegetables,” said Dozier, a mother of four who lives a block from the corner store. “The produce is affordable and convenient, and the kids can come in and get fruit instead of candy.”
The health benefits of her choice were undeniable. And as the number of like-minded neighbors join in — warding off cravings for sugary snacks, going for a celery stalk, a Brussels sprout, even broccoli — the rewards will be even greater.
Not just for them, but for the city.
Credit D.C. Central Kitchen with a myth-busting demonstration project, begun in 2011, called Healthy Corners. The nonprofit, which combines job training with food access programs, purchases fresh fruit and vegetables in bulk and supplies 53 corner stores with healthy fare. Nearly all of them are in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
The myth is that African Americans won’t buy fresh fruits and vegetables from a corner store. And yet, D.C. Central Kitchen has shown just how thoroughly the myth has been dispelled.
Between October 2017 and August 2018, D.C. Central Kitchen provided corner stores with 106,759 pounds of vegetables and fruit, translating to $87,276 in sales. In that same period from 2018 to 2019, the amount of produce sold had increased to 202,000 pounds and brought in $228,313 in receipts for store owners, according to D.C. Central Kitchen.
“We can’t overstate the fact that people do want to eat healthier and it was a huge mistake for store owners to think that only unhealthy foods would sell,” said Alex Moore, chief development officer for D.C. Central Kitchen.
A recent report by the organization showed that 61 percent of surveyed residents who live near the corner stores said they visited the store once a day. And 72 percent said they were eating more fruits and vegetables since the Healthy Corners project began.
During much of the past decade, D.C. Central Kitchen has overcome daunting challenges to build a viable food delivery network. Store owners and customers had to be persuaded to trust one another. The owners now understand that shoppers want more than snacks and sodas, and that customers want better interactions.
Cooking demonstrations have been held inside and outside stores. Fruit cups were packaged in the same colorful, attractive wrappings used by candymakers. Healthy recipes were printed on cards and passed out to customers. Neighborhood elders were chosen to find out from residents what items should be added to the store inventory.
Because some owners did not speak English fluently, interpreters were called in to navigate this new world.
Gregory Cooper, who oversees delivery of the produce, noted that much of the efforts now involve helping customers learn more about healthy meals. “We had a battle trying to convince customers to buy more vegetables than fruit to create a balanced diet,” he said. “But we’re making progress. Our most popular veggies are potatoes, onions, collard greens and spinach.”
D.C. Central Kitchen is certainly not alone in trying to make healthy foods more accessible. DC Greens works closely with the agency. And there are a cadre of food policy experts in the city, as well as churches with food ministries and numerous charitable organizations in the fight for food justice.
The injustice is all too obvious. The District may be one of the wealthiest cities in the nation, but it has neighborhoods that are segregated by race, and the wealth gap is among the widest in the nation.
According to the District’s 2018 Health Equity Report, six neighborhoods have neither a grocery store nor a corner store. They are called “food deserts,” located in predominantly black areas. An additional 17 neighborhoods have only corner stores, liquor stores and fast-food joints. These are the “food swamps,” with notoriously unhealthy food offerings, also in black neighborhoods.
About 11 percent of District residents are considered “food insecure,” meaning they are often faced with tough economic choices, such as whether to buy food or pay the rent. They are overwhelmingly black and Latino residents.
These patterns are deeply rooted in a systemic racism, historical and ongoing. Only four neighborhoods have retail food options in which at least 50 percent of the stores are considered high-quality, according to the Health Equity Report. And all of them are in predominantly white areas.
As D.C. Central Kitchen's Moore sees it, such systemic problems require systemic solutions. He believes that the networks and delivery systems developed for Healthy Corners can be expanded and incorporated into the city’s highly profitable and rapidly growing food economy.
“If we built the right kind of infrastructure around food production, with growers, processing centers and distributors, we could create a ton of jobs, spur business ownership and solve the talent-pipeline challenge,” Moore said. “We could help low-income residents get a firmer hold on the economic ladder and help them stay in the city instead of being displaced.”
Residents from neighborhoods such as Crystal Dozier’s Shipley Terrace, getting an opportunity to participate meaningfully in the District’s $5.47 billion food economy — supplying schools, restaurants and farmers markets with healthy produce, getting education and training for jobs, maybe even starting their own businesses.
By comparison, the much-heralded legal marijuana economy in D.C. and Maryland combined is only about $200 million, according to the latest Maryland state dispensary data and D.C. government estimates. And that has yet to produce substantial jobs for the region’s black residents. Yet black residents are still arrested at disproportionately high rates for possession and distribution of marijuana.
Nobody gets arrested for growing and selling kale.
And the medicinal properties of, say, beans and greens can be just as potent as weed.
Dozier was certainly all smiles as she left the Shipley market, headed home with healthy foods in hand.
“I’m getting into juicing,” she said merrily.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.