Discussions about food availability in small, urban corner and convenience stores often assume that few, if any, healthy options are available. Scant research has objectively assessed the types of foods available in small stores, yet could be instrumental in guiding the development of nutrition programs targeting these markets. Data collected in this study reveal that there are indeed healthier food options available in some stores and that some foods are available in single-serving packages. However, healthier foods are not as widely or consistently available as less healthful foods. The fact that convenience stores are so easily accessible makes them an important part of the adolescent food environment. Knowledge of which foods are available is important for research, education, and health promotion.
Beverages are a popular convenience store purchase for youth, particularly soda and artificially flavored fruit drinks;11
thus, interventions promoting healthy beverages could be highly impactful. Our findings indicate that alternatives to soda (e.g., bottled water and 100% fruit juice) were widely available; however, servings sizes may be inappropriate. For example, 100% fruit juice was often sold in multiple-serving containers, which may promote excess intake. Youth interventions promoting healthy snack alternatives should include a focus on portion sizes, and work with store owners to stock single-serving packages.
Barriers for storeowners in stocking healthier snack products may include the challenge of switching over stock, lack of infrastructure (e.g., coolers and display space), and fear of losing business. However, there may be creative solutions to these perceived barriers. For example, while many convenience stores are small, nearly all have beverage coolers. Storeowners could convert cooler space to stock healthy snacks (e.g., low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit, and ready-to-eat vegetables). Several convenience stores in this study (particularly those operated by larger retail chains) had “grab-and-go” cases, carrying yogurt, individual bags of baby carrots, and pre-made sandwiches. These stores often had baskets of apples, oranges, or bananas available in close proximity to the cash register. Therefore, there appear to be examples of viable business strategies that could be used to promote sales of healthful food items.
Advertising practices deserve additional research, as many food, alcohol and tobacco companies may provide incentives for stores to feature their products. Storeowners may feel that advertising revenue is essential for the success of their business. It is critical that public health professionals address these concerns in future efforts.
To our knowledge, this work is among the first of its kind to document important features of urban convenience stores surrounding public secondary schools, which may have a substantial impact on youth purchasing patterns. One strength of this study was the objective data collection methods. This type of research can be time and labor intensive, and thus has only been used in current research to a limited extent.2
In light of these factors, we could not conduct comprehensive audits of all products, nor could we record specific nutritional contents of many foods. We do not have in-depth data available to characterize pricing, quality, or quantity of specific foods or the specific number of advertisements present; these are factors that likely play a role in food purchasing decisions. These data were collected across one geographic region, and previous research suggests that there are important regional differences in small store food availability.16
In addition, given our limited sample size, we were not able to examine relationships between food availability and sociodemographic composition of the schools/neighborhoods in which stores were located. Although a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic populations are represented in these public schools, data were not differentiated based on these criteria. Finally, this study did not assess adolescent purchasing behaviors of food and beverage items. This is an important area for future research.
In conclusion, understanding the foods available in convenience stores near schools may be useful in developing youth-focused nutrition interventions. Although there has been much recent attention on school-based obesity prevention, we also need to expand efforts to include the food environment surrounding schools.9
In our urban sample, nearly all public secondary schools had at least one convenience store within one half mile. While many stores carried healthier beverage alternatives, a wide array of healthy snack options in convenient single-serving packages were lacking. Less healthful snacks were more widely advertised, had better placement in stores and were provided in a consistent and extensive selection in virtually all stores. Convenience stores located in close proximity to junior high and high schools represent an important and understudied component of the youth food environment, particularly in urban areas, and should be a part of future interventions to reduce obesity. Effective intervention strategies partnering with store owners are needed to improve the availability and price promotion of health foods and snacks in small, urban markets, as well as possible regulatory efforts that may limit students’ access to unhealthy food options surrounding schools.