Wilburt Oliver is a lifelong resident of Washington, D.C., and a daily customer these days at the Wheeler Market. In the past, he had to walk long distances for fresh produce. That was until the market on Wheeler Street paired with a program called Healthy Corners, providing him and his community a healthy and affordable option to buy groceries.
On a recent afternoon Oliver was eyeing a produce display at the market while eating a bag of chips. “I have been coming here for a few years,” he said about the market, which is located in a low-income neighborhood in the nation’s capital. “It is hard sometimes to find fresh food around here, so they were right on time with some fresh bananas when they put this in,” he said, referring to the produce display from Healthy Corners, which was packed with fresh sliced fruits and vegetables.
Oliver especially enjoys getting breakfast there, where he gets a banana almost every morning. But his favorite snack from the Healthy Corners display is the mixed fruits. “I like the grapes and all that mixed together, those are my favorite,” he added.
Healthy Corners is an initiative of the DC Central Kitchen, which is “sustainably expanding healthy food access in DC’s food deserts.” according to its website, The venture, which began as a pilot in 2010 with assistance from USDA, delivers fresh produce and healthy snacks to corner stores that previously sold precious little fresh food, and at wholesale prices and in smaller quantities than a conventional distributor. The stores can then sell the produce at below-market prices, making it attractive to cost-conscious customers. The Wheeler Market is one of 14 Healthy Corners stores in Ward 8, below the Anacostia River along D.C.’s southeastern border, and one of more than 70 stores now servicing the city.
Mulugeta Woldeabzghi, the owner of Wheeler Market, said when Healthy Corners first reached out to him nearly four years ago, he was excited to be a part of the program. “Healthy Corners found us, they came and proposed to us what they are all about, and we liked their idea, and this is something that benefits us and also benefits the community,” said Woldeabzghi.
Woldeabzghi says his busy store serves a couple dozen people on a regular basis who are seeking Healthy Corners items.
“Before Healthy Corners came in, we didn’t know our customers were very cautious about the food that they eat,” said Woldeabzghi. “Now, we are trying to find out which customers are interested in food provided by Healthy Corners” – and, he added, “we aren’t afraid to bring more and more healthy stuff in.”
Woldeabzghi said his ultimate goal is to provide healthy options for his customers and give them what they want to eat. “If we could get to a level where my clients are using Healthy Corners as half of their consumption, then we call it a success. With the right food at the right price, we can get there. I think Healthy Corners is the right choice and I want to grow with that.”
Nola Liu, the program manager for Healthy Corners, said the most important part of the project for her is “ultimately being able to create successful food access points and making sure that we are targeting areas that really need the Healthy Corners program and being intentional about what we do.”
“The most rewarding aspect is being able to see all the results that you put into your work,” said Liu. “Not every program can say that. What’s so great about the Healthy Corners program is that from idea to reality, you are able to see the products that you deliver. And when you go into stores you can see customers physically purchasing them.”
Alexander Moore, the chief development officer for DC Central Kitchen, which has been training jobless adults as restaurant workers and providing millions of meals to Washington’s homeless for years, said the Healthy Corners venture is “mission-driven.”
“Rather than just waiting for grocery stores to open in D.C.’s food deserts, we are delivering fresh healthy nutritious items to corner stores in low-income communities and helping them become access points for healthy food in a sustainable way.”
Moore said that, according to surveys by experts from American University, 63 percent of the customers at these corner stores shop at the stores every day.
“If you can change that food environment and provide healthy affordable options, you can actually affect someone’s diet on a daily basis, which is a really powerful ripple effect.”
USDA, Moore said, has been a “tremendous partner across multiple administrations.” The Community Food Project Grant Program (CFP) was a very powerful investor in the Healthy Corners program, “in that it allowed us to dramatically expand the infrastructure we provided to our corner stores.”
The program provides grants to help meet the food needs of low-income individuals through food distribution and community outreach.
Moore said Healthy Corners was able to make improvements like helping small businesses get refrigeration units and shelving units so they can stock and sell fresh produce. They also were able to provide marketing and technical assistance to the corner stores so, for example, they know how to make bananas last longer on the shelves, reducing the risk in stocking fresh items.
“We’ve also worked with the Local Food Production Program, which allowed us to work more directly with local farms to make sure that local products were on the shelves of our corner stores,” Moore said. “(That) was such a cool loop, given the stereotypes that exist around low-income urban communities, and about what type of food people are interested in and what type of food they will buy. We found that people really did want to make a healthy local choice if it was on the shelves and it was made affordable. The USDA was vital in that work.”
To learn more about DC Central Kitchen and its different ventures, click here.
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