Across the country neighborhoods are suffering from a lack of access to quality grocery stores and fresh produce. This phenomenon is popularly known as the food desert. Food deserts limit residents’ nutritional options. When combined with other factors like household incomes and educational attainments, food deserts may result in numerous public health challenges such as high levels of obesity and malnutrition. Today, almost a quarter of the country’s ZIP codes are considered food deserts.

Unfortunately, food deserts have also been found to disproportionately affect low-income neighborhoods. In fact, more than 55% of all ZIP codes with a median household income of less than $25,000 can be categorized as food deserts. Addressing food deserts has therefore become an equity issue for many downtowns and cities.

Although attracting a new grocery retailer and building a new supermarket in food deserts may appear to be a direct solution, numerous studies have found this strategy to have very little real impact on the eating habits of households in the area. Three separate studies conducted by researchers around the country found that the introduction of a new supermarket does not result in significant changes in household food availability, children’s dietary intake, reported fruit and vegetable intake or body mass index. Given that the grocery attraction strategy can be extremely costly and time-consuming, especially in underserved markets, it’s important that cities consider alternative solutions that may be slightly cheaper but more effective.

Often, underserved markets and food deserts already have an existing base of corner stores, delis, and bodegas (whatever you’re calling it in your region). These convenience stores don’t necessarily carry fresh food but they are existing assets in these neighborhoods that can be leveraged. These stores are already in physical spaces and because they’re in convenient locations (I mean, they’re on every other corner) they’re already being used by residents. These factors make them a great starting point for increasing the supply of fresh produce and healthy foods in food deserts.

Many cities have acknowledged the strength of these assets and begun to establish corner store incentive programs to help introduce fresh produce on the shelves of corner stores. These initiatives have been structured in various ways but they largely aim to address three of the biggest hurdles faced when re-designing corner stores as fresh food access points. Here’s what you need to do if you’re thinking of leveraging your existing corner stores:

  1. Store owner engagement and education

Unfortunately, many early corner store initiatives overlooked the importance of engaging corner store owners and their staff. These programs would typically start with a survey of residents to get a sense of their grocery shopping patterns or a physical assessment of corner stores. Without building the support and coalition amongst store owners themselves, however, many programs fell through because there was a lack of understanding of the barriers faced by business owners and a lack of understanding of their business models.

One city that overcame this is the Healthy Corner Store Initiative in Providence RI. Before even surveying customers, the Initiative set out to survey corner store owners in order to garner interest and participation in the program.

  1. Financing

Expanding corner stores’ product offerings to include healthy foods and fresh produce can be costly to business owners. There are costs involved in purchasing these additional products, in purchasing new equipment to house these products, in re-outfitting stores to accommodate additional shelves and equipment, in purchasing new point-of-sales systems that accept EBT, and finally in improving facades to attract new customers.

As such, healthy corner store programs need to include financial incentives that can offset all of these additional costs to corner store owners. Programs across the country offer a mix of loans and grants to fund the various interior and exterior store improvements. In Philadelphia PA, for example, over one hundred corner stores were provided with investments ranging between $1,000 and $5,000 to expand inventory of produce and other healthy products.

  1. Operations and management

Often the greatest hurdle in converting corner stores is the lack of knowledge amongst small business owners on how to purchase, price, stock, store and handle fresh produce. There are many ways to address this.

First, education. The St Louis Healthy Corner Store Project hires mentors with grocery retail experience to provide technical assistance and support to participating corner stores. And in Philadelphia PA, over 480 hours of training was provided between 2004 and 2012 to corner store owners.

Second, B2B support. To solve the difficulties faced in purchasing fresh produce in small quantities, several programs have connected corner stores with smaller local suppliers like farmers or wholesale warehouses willing to provide produce at no minimum purchase amounts. If there’s already a farmers market operating nearby, think about connecting those farmers with corner stores.

Although we hate to admit it, sometimes attracting a full service grocery store isn’t the best option.

We must remember, however, that bringing fresh and healthy foods closer to underserved communities is only one step in the process. The availability of these goods must also be marketed and promoted to the right audiences. And information about how to cook these products needs to be made easily accessible.

Partnering with existing local medical institutions and health organizations is a great way to market corner store improvements and educate residents on how to prepare healthy foods. Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, for example, offers cooking demonstrations weekly in the community in partnership with City Harvest.

Addressing food deserts is an enormous task and we need to be aware of all the options available. If your food desert already has thriving corner stores that already serve local residents, then think about how these assets can be leveraged to close the gap in access to fresh produce and healthy foods.