On our way over to the West River neighborhood, a former Italian enclave that is now predominantly black and Latino, Stacy Spell and I drive past a dilapidated storefront—its windows boarded up, its sidewalk dusty with the residue of melted street snow.
“See,” Spell beams at me, “the potential is here.” Spell is the head of the West River Neighborhood Services Corporation, which has recently partnered with the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE) at Yale’s School of Public Health to consult with local bodega owners about developing new business models that promote healthier options for consumers.
A former New Haven Police Department detective for over twenty years, Spell has the rough-and-ready wit and steadfast commitment to his community of the best law enforcement officers. He has lived in West River for most of his life and does not plan on leaving, despite some bad memories here. His nephew, an innocent bystander, was killed in 2000 at the package store next to the George Street Deli.
Like most convenience stores, George Street Deli has a few aisles stocked with basic groceries—rice, dried beans, flour, sugar, canned goods—as well as household cleaning supplies, a rack of chips and nuts up front, a bank of candy and gum under the counter, and a register encased by protective glass where lottery tickets and cigarettes sit. There are no fresh fruits or vegetables for sale, except for potatoes and onions and maybe a few plantains. The only other perishables are bread, eggs, and whole milk.
Bodegas fill a key niche in the urban ghetto, especially in “food deserts” like New Haven, which has a core population of 130,000 but no supermarket. (A Stop & Shop is slated to open in the former Shaw’s location this month, but many will still lack access to groceries.) A CARE study in the fall of 2009 found that, of the 104 stores mapped in the Fair Haven, West River/Dwight, Dixwell, Newhallville, Hill North, and West Rock neighborhoods, almost two-thirds were bodegas. Of the stores surveyed, 63 percent sold mostly junk food, while only 32 percent sold fresh fruit and 38 percent sold fresh vegetables.
When we get into the store, Spell points out a shelf of fourteen varieties of potato chips and cheese doodles, all available for $0.25. In the suburbs they only have $0.99 bags of the same brands, he tells me—a calculated disparity in price and marketing. He grabs a handful of the bags, an iced-tea beverage, and three snack packs of crackers, throws them on the counter, and after a quick exchange of bills hustles me out of the store. As we get into his Chevy Suburban, he nods at the bounty at the bottom of my seat. “Look,” he says, “for three dollars you get a feast—of junk.”
Bodega means wine cellar in Spanish, but the closest thing you’ll find to wine at George Street Deli in New Haven is wine-flavored cigarillos, which kids buy for a dollar and change so they can use the wrappers to smoke marijuana.
Spell explains that narcotics dealings happen frequently under the well-lit storefronts and neon signs because dealers can stymie the police by pretending they’re there to shop. He says that bodega owners are often immigrants—Hispanic, South Asian, Middle Eastern—and new to the neighborhood, so racial tensions run high. Kids come to the bodegas for after-school snacks. Single mothers and elderly people—many of them without cars—do their grocery shopping at bodegas because of their ubiquity. The intersection of Norton, George, and Derby streets alone, for example, has three.
Spell’s feast may have been cheap, but shopping at bodegas isn’t necessarily a bargain. Not only is the food unhealthy, but without the big-box economies of scale of a major grocer, bodegas have virtually no buying power in the distribution market. Besides soda, chips, and other products bought straight from the manufacturer, the food sold in bodegas is bought from wholesale retailers like BJs, Sam’s Club, Costco, and C-Town Supermarkets and then resold. This means that some staple grocery items are marked up steeply. A pound of Domino granulated sugar costs $4.49 at George Street Deli. By comparison, that same product costs $1.45 at Stop & Shop in Hamden.
For bodega owners struggling to make it, the price disparity is just the nature of the business. The owner of George Street Deli, Ram Regmi, moved to the United States from Kathmandu, Nepal, two years ago. He has owned the store for the last year. When pressed about the mark-up on his products, Regmi emphasized that his was a convenience store, not a supermarket.
Most of his profits come from candy, cigarettes, and especially soda. By contract, most bodegas get free refrigeration units from big-name beverage companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi in return for stocking them with the companies’ brand products—an unsettling irony given that one major reason bodega owners don’t sell fresh food is the cost of refrigeration.
It’s not the most lucrative business. Although Regmi takes in about $1,500 a month in Pepsi products alone and sells them at around a fifty percent margin, he still only makes about $0.75 for every 2-liter bottle sold. For chips, margins are even tighter, a few pennies on each bag. “I cannot get a lot of money from here,” Regmi lamented. “It’s not enough.”
Janett Quintero moved to New Haven sixteen years ago from Tlaxcala, Mexico. Together with her husband, Quintero manages Dollar Haven Deli for her husband’s uncle, who is from Morocco (she makes nine dollars an hour to her husband’s ten). Dollar Haven is situated in a dangerous area. Last year, a man came in to rob the store while Quintero was leaving and stabbed her coworker.
Dollar Haven Deli opened just last year. It is located across the street from George Street Deli, and the only thing differentiating it from its competitor is a large neon street-side sign falsely advertising “Pizza by the Slice.” Quintero’s uncle-in-law wants to expand to include a deli with prepared foods but has not yet done so because of the cost. Next to the would-be pizza counter a greyish puddle of mop water has collected in a buckle in the tiling.
Dollar Haven, like George Street Deli, offers little selection. There’s no fresh meat or produce. For fruit, there’s only canned papaya and pineapple.
I asked Quintero if it was a problem that so much of the food sold at Dollar Haven is processed and packaged. Before Quintero could answer, a young woman came up to the counter and bought for $0.50 apiece four cigarettes, or “loosies” as they are called, which Quintero had unwrapped from a box.
“For me, it’s not a problem,” she said after completing the sale. She was holding her infant daughter in her arms. “I don’t give my children that kind of food. For the customers, it’s a problem. They don’t have other options around. They can only get pizzas and sandwiches. Or they come here to buy groceries—whatever they can find.” Quintero has a car and gets her groceries from ShopRite in West Haven. Many others do not have that option.
Food access is a problem not only of mobility but also of price. “They don’t have enough money to buy real food like chicken, rice, and eggs,” Quintero said of her neighbors.
Social entrepreneurs and community activists have recognized bodegas as an opportunity as well as a problem. When James Johnson-Piett, an entrepreneur specializing in urban development, came to campus on January 17 to give a talk sponsored by the Yale Sustainable Food Project, he noted the potential of bodega owners to effect real change in inner-city communities.
“Bodega owners have the best potential to be ‘change agents’ because they have such an investment in their consumers,” he argued at the talk.
Johnson-Piett’s company, Urbane evelopment, LLC, based in Philadelphia, works to educate bodega owners on how to streamline their operations so they can make money without selling inferior products, in particular by helping them integrate technology into their businesses. Many currently use haphazard accounting methods—shoeboxes, for example, to store cash and receipts.
“We have to educate the bodega owner. You can increase your sales by selling a better product, and it will benefit you and your community,” Spell said.
Part of the Healthy Corner Store Initiative he helps to run with CARE is consulting with five stores about stocking and marketing healthier food like low-fat milk, whole-grain snacks, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The goal is to develop individualized plans with an emphasis on in-store marketing techniques for stocking and displaying these foods, like shelving bottled water at eye level and creating posters indicating which products are junk food.
How bodega owners will receive these suggested changes is another question. Many bodega owners have little to no formal education, awareness of urban public health problems, or training in financial management.
Whether consumers will purchase these healthier but often more expensive products is also a concern. “When you can walk in with a dollar and buy a drink, a bag of chips and piece of candy, what kid is going to spend more on healthier foods?” Spell asked.
Isadora Tang SOM ’10 has been trying to answer that question. MyLu Foods—which she founded in May 2010 with a $15,000 Yale Entrepreneurial Institute Summer Fellowship and the goal of developing and marketing a healthier version of Lunchables to sell to New Haven youth—has struggled to balance its social mission with the demands of running a small business.
“Our whole reason for being,” Tang said, “is that we want to serve underserved communities that don’t have the option of healthy food.” But bodega owners tend to be wary of her product, which, despite its obvious benefits, retails at $1.99—a marked increase over a $0.50 package of Hostess cakes.
When bodega owners like Regmi are trying to support themselves and their families, low-income shoppers have little recourse to healthier foods. As Johnson-Piett noted, “When we talk about food justice, it distills down to a simple thing—poverty.”