Our study provides a detailed evaluation of snack food inventories in corner stores in three distinct low income, minority neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Our findings confirm what other research 50,55,57–88
has suggested for years: corner stores stock mostly unhealthful snack foods. In fact, we show that corner stores stock unhealthy snack foods almost to complete exclusion of healthy items. The stores in our sample offered no fruit or vegetables of varieties suitable for snacking. They exhibited few wholegrain items, and the kinds that were available were predominantly high in fat, sodium, and/or added sugar. Almost all other stocked snack foods were likewise “unhealthy”, being highly refined, pre-packaged products of either the salty or sweet variety. While there was marked variation in the number and kinds of snack foods offered across neighborhoods and between stores—and in the number and kinds of manufacturers from which these snacks came—the distributions in categories of snack foods were remarkably constant. Children, shopping at any of the corner stores in these Philadelphia neighborhoods, would have a similar exposure to unhealthy foods. Purchasing just one snack item could provide a child with more than half a day’s total recommended calories, and about 100% or greater the total recommended limits of fat, sugar, and sodium.
A relative or complete lack of fresh produce and wholegrain products is a consistent theme in research on corner stores, particularly for stores in low income, minority, or disadvantaged neighborhoods.50,56–60,63,65,67,68,74,75,79,83–85
While most past research on store inventories has focused predominantly—though not exclusively57,85
—on produce that is fresh, dietary guidelines are not generally specific about recommending fruits and vegetables in this form.37–41,92,93
In our study, we also considered shelf stable produce varieties such as dried (e.g., raisins), canned (e.g., pop top, single-serving fruit cocktail), and jarred (e.g., salsa) items to show complete exclusion from corner store shelves.
The vast majority of snack products available on corner store shelves (>95%) were highly processed foods. Healthy snack foods could scarcely be found. Similarly, Bovell-Benjamin et al. reported that while healthy foods were less available in corner stores, sugary items were universally present.57
Likewise, Glanz and colleagues demonstrated that corner stores tend to carry the higher fat, higher sugar varieties of common foods.
Although we designed our study to measure corner store inventories only, other researchers have linked store offerings to dietary pattern. Franco et al. showed that lower healthy food availability within a neighborhood or at the closest store was associated with consuming a less healthy diet.73
And Pearce et al., 94
showed that individuals in neighborhoods with the best access to corner stores had lower odds of meeting recommendations for vegetable intake. These findings are not surprising in light of our corner store inventory results.
Looking specifically at school children’s snack purchases from corner stores (in another study from Philadelphia), Borradaile and colleagues showed that children purchased no fruits or vegetables and only bought refined sweets and salty snacks.55
In this study, authors reported that children bought an average of 1.6 food items per purchase, with the majority of children shopping at corner stores everyday and 42% shopping at corner stores twice daily. Applying these purchasing patterns to the inventory findings from our study, a child’s two shopping trips to a corner store in a day could supply 18-44% of day’s calories, fat, sugar, and sodium under a median scenario
and 178-545% under a maximum scenario
(see Table for median and maximum scenarios). And these values are likely gross underestimations given that most urban children—particularly minorities and those with low income—are less physically active (and therefore require fewer daily calories) than we have assumed in our hypothetical scenarios for a “typical” child.96,97
Also, by more rigorous international guidelines from the WHO, the recommended upper daily limit of sugar should be only 10% of total calories 97
(not the 25% we consider from the US Dietary Reference Intakes 89
). Moreover, very young children (ages 4-8) should have no more than 1,900 mg of sodium per day, almost 14% less than the 2,200 mg we set as our conservative upper limit.89
When considering our corner store inventory findings along with Borradaile et al’s data on children’s purchasing patterns, we set up somewhat of a chicken-and-egg
dilemma: it is impossible to know which precedes the other. In fact, the relationship between food availability and dietary pattern is likely bidirectional.73
In our study, there were striking differences in snack product offerings between neighborhoods, which may suggest different consumer preferences or vendor priorities (or both) in ethnically distinct areas of the city. Our findings are consistent with prior work showing varying availability of specific foods across the same type of stores located in different neighborhoods.74
Assuming that food availability does in fact influence what consumers purchase, then we agree with other authors that corner stores can play a critical role in helping curb rates of obesity and diet-related diseases by providing healthful food.50,53,54,98
Certainly, the food industry can be a partner in fulfilling this role. In our study, the majority of the more than 450 different snack foods came from just three manufacturers. All three companies have already attempted to make healthier alternative snacks that were available in our sample (although clearly there is room for improvement as half of these products were not actually “healthy” even by our liberal definition). Other companies could attempt to develop healthier products as well, and also gradually modify their “regular” products to reduce the amounts of fat, sugar, and sodium. Multi-brand manufacturers might be better able to experiment with such modifications, creating whole new brands (e.g., “Sunchips”) before tinkering with tested favorites (e.g., “Cheetos”). Changing consumer preferences (the other side of the “chicken-and-egg” issue) could encourage and accelerate such change. Or change could come through direct government intervention (e.g., New York City’s campaign to regulate the amount of sodium in processed foods).99
We further agree with other authors that corner stores, non-profits, and government can work together to encourage networks between store owners and local producers, bringing healthy food from local farms and bakeries into the corner store product mix.50,100
Corner store/non-profit/government collaboration can also make possible the acquisition of refrigeration and other equipment that would better enable stores to stock healthy food.50,98
Also, broad government policies (e.g., national changes to the Women, Infants, and Children program) 101
may incentivize corner store owners to make healthy changes to their inventories. And new government initiatives (like the USDA’s Healthy Urban Food Enterprise Development Center, created in the 2008 Farm Bill 102
) can create national infrastructure to help establish local and regional food systems for sourcing healthy foods to corner stores.
Our study makes several important contributions to the literature on local food environments. Ours is the first study to provide a comprehensive, detailed evaluation of snack food inventories in corner stores, describing the range in scope of offerings. We separately considered multiple stores near three ethnically distinct, low income schools, showing important differences across neighborhoods and between stores. We provide the first ever data in the medical or public health literature about food manufacturers and the industrial origins of corner store snack foods. We used established dietary recommendations and food policy to guide our food categorizations and showed both the near absence of recommended foods, and a glut of foods associated with promoting obesity and chronic disease. Finally, we evaluated the theoretical impact of corner store snack food environments on a “typical” child’s diet, showing impressive potential detriment.
Despite notable strengths, our study also had limitations. First, the stores we inventoried represent a select sample. Although we are reassured by consistencies with related past research, local and regional variations may prevent broad generalization of our findings. Second, we evaluated snack products only and did not conduct a broader assessment of foods sold in stores. For intentional reasons, we did not count candies—which were available in all stores—nor prepared food—which were available in some. These items would have likely increased not only the proportions of unhealthy food we found, but also the media and maxima for calories, fat, sugar, and sodium given the high sugar (±fat) content of most candy and the high fat and sodium content of most prepared foods (e.g., hot dogs, nachos, and fried cheese). We did not count beverages, but prior research has shown that beverages account for less than 20% of snack items purchased from corner stores.55
We limited our product counts to unique items, not total items, and thus can only report on item variety, not abundance. We did not collect information on the placement or prominence of products in stores; nor promotions or pricing which are important considerations as well.104
We conducted our inventories at a single point in time, thus, findings represent only a cross-sectional snapshot. Finally, we only collected limited nutritive information, although data on other relevant constituents (e.g., trans
-fat, saturated fat, and fiber) would likely only make our findings more striking given the preponderance of highly processed foods we found.