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Should Cities Require Food Stores to Sell Healthy Food?

By Marice Ashe, ChangeLab Solutions

If someone in your community wants to open a new restaurant, chances are this entrepreneur will need to apply for a license that requires meeting certain health standards in order to stay in business.

But what if that same person wanted to run a convenience store? If there are no supermarkets nearby, residents might rely on that store for their groceries. And let's face it – it's often much easier to find chips and soda on convenience store shelves than it is to find fruits and vegetables.

Imagine that your city took a novel step in the name of public health. Under new licensing requirements, all stores selling food and beverages – including mini-marts and corner stores – must devote a certain amount of store space to produce and other healthy staple foods, and they have to limit the amount dedicated to sugary drinks and alcohol.

Unprecedented? Not quite. Minneapolis began setting nutrition standards for food sellers (including corner stores) in 2008, and now more than 300 convenience stores throughout the city are required to carry produce and staple foods.

Why haven't more cities followed Minneapolis' lead? With obesity rates at epidemic levels, government officials are trying to tackle the problem from every angle – but to date few have done so through expanded retail licensing laws.

A New Twist on a Proven Tool
There's nothing new about the idea of using a licensing program to promote public health and safety. Several types of businesses require such licenses, from tobacco stores and massage parlors to gun shops and restaurants.

So why not extend the idea to one of the greatest public health challenges of our time? Chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes are the most common and costly of all health problems in America, accounting for three-quarters of the nation's health care spending. Poor eating habits play a significant role, and local governments are increasingly recognizing that they can help address and reduce these trends through various programs and policies.

Of course, when it comes to working with the private sector, policymakers can pursue a range of incentive-based approaches: providing tax credits or subsidies, say, or reducing the amount of time it takes to get a permit or the amount of paperwork to open a business.

But incentives alone are rarely enough to achieve some public health goals, like reversing obesity rates in a community. A regulatory approach makes sense when a disease can be prevented through proven interventions, and when it's important that all neighborhoods experience the impact of a policy (hear more about incentives, outreach and implementation of licensing laws in this ChangeLab Solutions webinar).

Even where mandates are concerned, city agencies can partner with store owners on this kind of initiative to establish and enforce the new requirements. And because the overall goal is to promote a healthier food environment – not to penalize retailers – enforcement efforts should focus on educating and supporting retailers. In fact, a February 2012 report from the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support found that while the city's grocery licensing ordinance was an important tool for changing the food environment in Minneapolis, store owners needed support to maintain required foods. Through low-cost loans and technical assistance, local government can help store owners get the equipment and know-how they need in order to stock healthy perishables like fruits and vegetables.

Benefits for Store Owners and the Community
Across the country, stores participating in local "corner store conversion" programs – voluntary efforts to encourage small store owners to stock more nutritious foods – have reported increased revenue after adding healthier offerings to their shelves. In San Francisco's low-income Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, where local stores are typically more likely to carry liquor than produce, Super Save owner Sam Aloudi saw strong sales for healthier products after shifting his inventory away from alcohol toward produce. With some help from local government and advocates, his store's annual revenue grew from $600,000 to $1.5 million over ten years; receipts from produce came to account for more than $258,000 a year.

What's more, by stocking produce, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and other staple foods, stores also may become eligible vendors for programs like WIC or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the federal program formerly known as food stamps) – a benefit for community residents and store owners alike.

Meanwhile, the community-wide benefits of "healthy licensing" can extend beyond nutrition. For instance, the impetus for Minneapolis' program was actually crime prevention: city officials had been getting complaints about corner stores being a crime magnet and sought a way to draw in more customers, making the stores less of a haven for criminals. Accordingly the city's grocery license requirements call not only for more healthy foods but also for better store lighting and limits on signage blocking the windows.

Of course, it'll take more than stepping up licensing standards to create healthy and safe neighborhoods – but it's certainly a step in the right direction. Encouraging families to eat better is pointless if healthier foods are out of reach. By making small changes in local licensing laws, cities can protect public health and make healthier choices easier for entire communities.

Marice Ashe is the founder and CEO of ChangeLab Solutions, a nonprofit policy research and training center based in Oakland, California. ChangeLab Solutions has developed a model ordinance for healthy food retailer licensing. Visit or submit a request for more information.

Feel free to send comments to this posting to [email protected].