There is a lot of talk these days about “food desserts” where people don’t have sufficient access to healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Many of these are in low income areas. For example, the US Department of Agriculture states that 23 million people live in low-income areas that are more than a mile from a supermarket. Unfortunately, many of these same neighborhoods have ready access to alcohol, tobacco, and fast food.
Over the years, various problems have been identified with stores that sell alcohol. Some of these are:
- Products that appeal to youth and street drinkers:High alcohol content products such as 90 proof liquor, 24 oz. tall cans (“black out in a can”), and cheap drinks favored by street drinkers. In some states, some of these products are banned in areas frequented by “public inebriates.”
- Advertising and promotion practices: These include over-exposing youth to alcohol ads by placing promotions near toys or candy and inducing high volume sales by offering deep discounts or special coupons. Some states prohibit coupons or discounting for alcohol.
- Security issues: Some stores are open after midnight with only one or two staff members. These can become targets for robberies. Advertising signs sometimes cover most of the front windows which shields the view of criminal activity inside the store. Some states and municipalities regulate the percentage of window space that can cover the view as well as lighting and staffing issues.
- Neighborhood nuisances such as litter or drug dealing: Regulations sometimes include the parking area as part of the licensed premises and require regular maintenance. Others use “good neighbor agreements” as a way for the licensee and community to work together on improvement measures.
So, what can be done to improve this situation?
California launched a program called Healthy Stores for Healthy Communities– a collaboration between health advocates in the fields of nutrition, tobacco control and alcohol abuse prevention. Information was gathered from more than seven thousand stores to document what products are sold and how they are promoted and advertised to influence purchases. California’s counties then worked on ways to make changes and used subsequent surveys to track changes.
An example is the Alameda County Public Health Department report. “Food Access & Liquor Stores” made several recommendations including using zoning regulations to limit new fast food establishments in particularly over-saturated areas. The report recommended retaining the option to revoke the liquor license of any store where littering, drug dealing or other types of nuisances occur. Another recommendation was to offer financial assistance for converting liquor stores into other kinds of businesses that community members would like to have nearby.
Following on the data collected by Healthy Stores for Healthy Communities, a non-profit called ChangeLab Solutions has come up with some interesting and useful strategies and materials for stakeholders trying to achieve healthy food availability. Because smaller stores are prevalent, and attracting larger grocery stores to underserved areas can be difficult, they came up with ways to encourage corner stores to offer healthier options. This includes in-store and exterior marketing and healthy foods in the checkout area where a captive audience is often encouraged to make impulse purchases. This seems like a promising idea as sometimes small stores sell primarily alcohol and tobacco products, but could stock more healthy foods that can’t be obtained in the vicinity.
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