If you think all convenience stores carry the same stuff, try crossing town. In general, the poorer the neighborhood, the poorer the selection. More Olde English, less fruit or, in most cases, no fruit at all. No vegetables. No loaves of bread, for crying out loud. No sign of the existence of real food in the world whatsoever, unless you count Combos Pizzeria Pretzels.
Membership in the Healthy Corner Stores Network has grown from about 50 stores in 2006 to more than 600 today nationwide.
You may be thinking, “So what?” That’s what convenience stores are meant to be: a quick stop for grabbing a six-pack or quart of milk when you can’t get to the supermarket. But when the closest Safeway is four miles away and you don’t have a car — or the strength or the cash to take a cab home with your overstuffed brown paper bags — then convenience stores become your only option — and “New & Improved Hot Pockets” become dinner.
So, corner stores are a staple as much as the items they carry. But now they’re being increasingly targeted, not so much by armed robbers as by nonprofit groups like the Philadelphia-based Food Trust , which has been working, Frito by Twinkie, to overhaul their unhealthy inventories. Last year, the organization convened the first Healthy Corner Stores Symposium and released an extensive report in conjunction with ChangeLab and NPlan, “Toward a Sustainable Model for Small-Scale Healthy Food Retail .” A key finding? “Growing evidence suggests that enhancing the offerings at small stores has the potential to improve health and economic outcomes in communities with the greatest need.” (Duh, but it’s nice to have it spelled out, isn’t it?)
But in Atlanta, brother-sister duo Alison and Alphonzo Cross are doing more than sneaking fruit in between the Froot Loops — they’re building an entirely new model of what a corner store can be. One-year-old Boxcar Grocer aims to bring healthy, local food to all urban neighborhoods that need it. They opened their first store — what they call “a convenient market” — near downtown Atlanta in Castleberry Hill, a predominantly black middle-class neighborhood whose pre-Boxcar options consisted of stores attached to gas stations. Combining food justice with sustainable design, Boxcar is a realistic, altruistic, for-profit venture that connects consumers to local organic urban farmers to offer healthy, high-quality products — and create community in the process. They carry as many locally made products as possible, like Sweet Georgia Grains and Chuice . And they make a concerted effort to partner with local black farmers like Truly Living Well’s Rashid Nuri , whose transformation of a housing project in the city’s old fourth ward into an urban oasis is nothing short of amazing.
“We want Boxcar to become a brand that is synonymous with quality food and community development,” says Alison, who was recently interviewed for Marcus Samuelsson’s blog . Samuelsson owns Red Rooster Harlem and is heralded for celebrating local fare as a means of strengthening community. “Oh, it would be heaven to set up shop next to Red Rooster and build on the vision that is happening there.”
Boxcar may not be coming to the Big Apple yet, but a second location in Atlanta is expected sometime next year. That will be followed by expansion plans in San Antonio, Chattanooga, New Orleans, West Oakland and Bayview in San Francisco. Their goal? Twenty cities by 2020. See ya, 7-Eleven.
Why you should care
Because, c’mon, a world without Doritos “Jacked” ranch-dipped, hot-wings-flavored tortilla chips would be a much better place.