D.C. Corner Stores Aren’t Just for Junk Food Anymore
The first thing you notice at T&G Grocery in Eckington is the ceiling-high wall of Cheetos and Doritos facing the attendant’s protective glass box. Beyond that, you see packaged doughnuts and cream-filled Little Debbie cakes. Up until about three years ago, the healthiest thing you’d find at this corner store was bananas.
“Eight grapes, stacked ’em in. Put your old up front, new in the back. First in, first out,” deliveryman Ed Johnson tells shopkeeper Janet Yaekob. “Tomatoes and potatoes, same thing. I rotated, put the fresh ones to the back. Also five pineapples…And your six tomatoes.”
Next to the wall of chips, Johnson restocks a refrigerator that’s now stuffed with apples, oranges, tomatoes, peppers, and other fruits, alongside baskets of onions and potatoes plus packages of nut-and-dried-fruit trail mix. Some of the produce is sourced locally, from the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction of Virginia and Kilmer’s Farms in West Virginia. Beside a basket of bananas sit some pamphlets that explain how to prepare romaine lettuce and recipe cards for spicy cauliflower tapas—though the shop sells neither lettuce nor cauliflower.
Johnson is one of the delivery drivers for DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy Corners program, which aims to make fruits and vegetables more accessible in the District’s food deserts and low-income neighborhoods. The local nonprofit is best known for its culinary job-training program, which prepares unemployed, previously incarcerated, and homeless people for jobs in the food industry.
“In the beginning, we don’t sell a lot,” says Yaekob, who runs the 10-year-old T&G Grocery with her family. When the shop first signed on with Healthy Corners, she says they were only selling two to four fresh produce items a day. But it’s started to catch on. “We sell a lot of bananas every day, onion, potatoes,” she says. “Tomatoes, we sell a lot.” Three years later, she believes the program has brought many more people through the door.
Healthy Corners now delivers groceries to 34 corner stores in wards 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. According to DC Central Kitchen, the program generated more than $46,000 in new revenue for the small businesses by the end of 2012. (DCCK hasn’t calculated revenue for 2013.) The initiative began with a six-month pilot program in September 2011 that covered 30 stores across wards 5, 7, and 8, thanks to a grant from the D.C. Department of Small and Local Business Development. Now, Healthy Corners operates on a $200,000 annual budget funded by DCCK and private grants. Beginning in March, it will nearly double its reach, distributing produce to 30 more stores.
Johnson has worked with DCCK for a little more than three years. “Once upon a time, I was one of the individuals that kind of somewhat did a lot of negative things throughout the city,” the 54-year-old says, without going into detail. He found out about DCCK’s culinary training program while living in a halfway house, and he graduated from the program in early 2011. One of his first jobs working for DCCK was making the daily deliveries for Healthy Corners. Now he works primarily with the nonprofit’s Fresh Start Catering and occasionally fills in for Healthy Corners deliveries.
Johnson begins his day’s stops one recent Friday at DCCK’s Nutrition Lab, a 6,000-square-foot production kitchen in Langdon. Sporting an all-black DCCK uniform and cap, he packs boxes of produce into the back of the van. Emblazoned on the vehicle’s exterior is the slogan “Helping deliver local foods to combat hunger and create opportunity,” alongside a picture of a DCCK employee and a bounty of fruits and veggies.
“I know when I was coming up, you couldn’t go to the corner stores and convenience stores like we do today get some nice Red Delicious apples or green apples or some nice, fresh Sunkist oranges,” says Johnson, who grew up in Petworth. Instead, his mom shopped for groceries mostly in the suburbs. “I just love when someone says, ‘Oh these are some nice bananas, they’re nice, they’re fresh.’ If I ain’t did nothing else today, I put a smile on someone’s face.”
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“You have tomatoes?” asks Eckington shopkeeper Tez Manisher.
“Yes,” says Johnson.
“Are they firm?” she asks. “How about your bananas? Are they ripe?”
Johnson goes out to the van to retrieve the produce so Manisher can take a look for herself. He says many of the shopkeepers have become invested in making sure they’re getting the best product.
“Let me see?” Manisher says. Johnson puts the tomato in the turnstile security window, and Manisher opens the partition on her end and gives it a squeeze. “Just give me four.”
We’re at Eckington’s McKinley Super Market, a corner store owned by Manisher’s brother. It’s housed in a rundown brick building covered by a white metal grate and cigarette posters. The rusty sign advertising Coca-Cola, cold beer, wine, fresh meats, and vegetables seems like something out of another era. While I don’t see any fresh meats inside, there are vegetables right up front next to the D.C. Lottery slips.
DCCK supplies the corner stores with the necessary minifridges and display baskets for free. The shops buy the produce for wholesale prices from DCCK, averaging about 20 cents per item. Johnson comes in with a clipboard listing nearly 30 types of fruits and vegetables, ranging from apples to sweet potatoes to cucumbers, and the shop owners pick what they want.
Manisher says McKinley didn’t have any fresh produce before Healthy Corners. For many corner-store operators, it’s not easy to find an efficient food distributor to sell it at an affordable price. Some shop owners weren’t sure customers wanted fresh fruit and vegetables before Healthy Corners stepped in. But now, McKinley sells up to $20 to $30 worth of produce a day, with bananas the most popular item. Still, it’s no match for the junk food. “There’s no comparison. We sell a lot of chips,” Manisher says. “At least it’s here. People know that it’s here so when they want fruits and vegetables they can always come in and get it here.”
During the course of Johnson’s drop-off, two men walk in and buy chips. Then comes nearby resident Janette Lattimore, who says this is where she gets many of her groceries. “I’d probably have to walk about 15 to 20 minutes to get to Giant,” she says. She grabs a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English. And a banana.
Johnson’s next stop of the day is Whitelaw Market at 13th and T streets NW, just blocks from some of the city’s trendiest restaurants. The difference is immediately apparent: Instead of Funyuns facing the door, there are avocado-oil potato chips and organic salsa. In this gentrified area, owner Sileshi Alamirew places the largest produce order of the day. He says he didn’t carry any produce except bananas until Healthy Corners came along. “I’m pretty glad, and my customers are pretty happy,” he says. The closest place to get fresh groceries is Yes! Organic Market on 14th Street NW, but the extra five blocks makes a difference to his patrons. “They’re telling me, ‘OK, I don’t have to go to Safeway, Giant. I have to drive, but now you have this stuff, so I’m going to come here.’”
“My worry is not to make a profit on that. It’s to bring the customers here, bring the traffic. When they come to buy one thing, they buy the other stuff,” says Alamirew.
I accompany Johnson on two more stops: Stop and Go in Columbia Heights and Dollar Plus & Grocery, near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro. Stop and Go store manager Michael Tekleab doesn’t place an order; he’s already got a full stock. “Usually we order quite a bit,” he says, especially tomatoes, limes, and lemons, which are popular with the neighborhood’s large Latino population. Dollar Plus & Grocery worker Seied Raju, whose brother owns the shop, only requests a few pieces of fruit. The store isn’t exactly in a food desert; Giant is only about a block away. Still, Raju says it brings in some business, and “it’s good for the community.”
Dollar Plus & Grocery has one of the smallest Healthy Corners selections of the day: trail mix, oranges, onions, and browning bananas, which sit alongside belly-button rings and pickled sausages. While he says most the prices are good, he has one nitpick: “This is a little bit expensive,” Raju says, pointing to the oranges. “We buy it for 41 cents, sell it for 50 cents. Sometimes they don’t sell, we throw them away.”
Johnson takes some of the bruised and aging items back with him. Depending on their condition, they’ll either be composted or reused in the meals that DCCK serves to schools and the elderly, or through its other programs. Browning bananas, for example, might be baked into bread or dehydrated to make chips that go into the trail mix that ends up back on the corner stores’ shelves.
That idea of second chances doesn’t just apply to the bananas. It’s also what Johnson feels like DCCK has helped him do with his life. He might not be the most obvious beneficiary of Healthy Corners, but he considers himself one in his own way. “I felt really good, I felt great. I felt now I’m able to give back,” Johnson says of becoming a Healthy Corners driver, as we head back to the Nutrition Lab after his last delivery. “I’m able to do something positive over the negative things I’ve done in my past.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery