Greening the Liquor Store: A National Network of Organizations Is Trying to Bring Healthier Food Choices to the Ubiquitous Liquor Stores in Poor Neighborhoods. but Converting Is Hard to Do

By Andrade, Kara | Colorlines Magazine, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Greening the Liquor Store: A National Network of Organizations Is Trying to Bring Healthier Food Choices to the Ubiquitous Liquor Stores in Poor Neighborhoods. but Converting Is Hard to Do


Andrade, Kara, Colorlines Magazine


At first glance, School Market looks like your typical corner store. It sells beer; it's located near the free-way; the neighborhood is multiracial and troubled by drug dealing; and the nearest supermarket is half a mile away. Like most corner stores, School Market has depended on the sale of alcohol (mostly beer and wine) and tobacco for the bulk of its income, while also supplementing sales with convenience food and snacks.

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But School Market is a bit different. Five years ago, the California Food Policy Advocates, an anti-poverty program that lobbies for increasing food access among poor people, approached the store's owner, Faiz Tom Ahmed, with a proposition. They would give him some technical assistance if he would sell produce. It is a process known as "greening," and Ahmed agreed to be part of a pilot project that the organization was running in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California.

The owner, known affectionately in the neighborhood as Ahmed, was hopeful. A 50-year-old Yemeni immigrant and the father of seven children, he agreed that greening might be good for business. "I started working with them because sometimes business is up and down so I try anything different to change it," he says. "And Nathan [the consultant] stayed with me for a week to show me how to take care of vegetables, and I learned fast."

The store is part of local and national efforts at turning corner stores into sources of produce and nutritious foods for poor communities of color. But greening is not easy. School Market, like many corner stores, has fallen prey to drug dealers in the past five years. In January, it was robbed. And the food access organization that helped the store convert to produce has not followed up with Ahmed.

"The School Street Project was supposed to increase access to food in the community," says Anaa Reese, a nutrition policy administrator at the Alameda County Department of Public Health who worked on the conversion of School Market. "But if there isn't enough support in the community to do that, it's not going to work. You have to work with the store owners for a long period of time on how to maintain the market and display their goods."

What happened at School Market raises some important questions about how fresh produce and healthy foods can be sold in poor communities of color.

Minding the Store

For the Ahmeds, as for countless others, running corner stores is a family business. Ahmed immigrated to the United States in 1974 with his father, who operated a store in Washington. Working on California farms, Ahmed saved his earnings, and in 1982 he bought the School Market. The 1,300-square-foot store sits in Fruitvale, a now rapidly gentrifying section in Oakland. A few years after making the purchase, Ahmed decided, at the request of customers, to obtain a beer, wine and distilled spirits license. He quickly became a fixture in the neighborhood. His wife and children, including his youngest, seven-year-old Islam, help him at the store, which opens at seven in the morning and closes at 9:30 p.m.

Ahmed was an ideal storeowner for a greening project. Alameda County and the California Food Policy Advocates gave him technical assistance, training, equipment and mentoring. A consultant, Nathan Chang, was hired to work with Ahmed at reorganizing the interior of the store and making efficient use of space, display of foods and beverage storage. Ahmed also received a produce refrigerator. The store was repainted and Plexiglas installed so customers could see the produce and hopefully feel enticed to enter.

All told, the program lasted a year. The organization issued its report, and there was no follow-up.

Last summer, drug dealers began hanging out at Ahmed's store after the city began to actively monitor a nearby drug house. Many of his regular customers stopped coming. Those who did come to shop at the store were purchasing alcohol and loitering outside. …

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