Home Social Construct Why There’s No Good Food In the ‘Hood: Deconstructing the Bodega and the Corner Store

Why There’s No Good Food In the ‘Hood: Deconstructing the Bodega and the Corner Store

by Erika Nicole Kendall

The other day, I received this question as a comment on another post, and I was a little dumbfounded. Not in a bad way, but not in a good way, either:

I’m currently on food assistance and I try So hard to pick and purchase healthy foods but its so difficult when you don’t really live close to a wholefoods store. But my question to the masses is this, why is it that all the healthy foods super expensive and all the fast food places have cheap, taste great but its bad for you. Why is this system like that? Is it designed to make us fail or die quicker as black people because of possible over population of the earth? I might be overreaching on this but it is a legitimate question that I’d truly appreciate a valid and informed answer to. Thank you for your time.

Listen. You can’t ask me for a “valid and informed” answer and not expect almost 2,000 words. So… fair warning.


Now, listen. I know that a lot of the videos and documentaries about food in the ‘hood include quotes of Sonia Sanchez and other activists talking about how this is “black genocide” by “allowing this crap to be sold here,” but while I don’t think it’s that deep, and while I still travel and speak about food availability and fitness and how hard people fight to circumvent the struggles of both… I do have to admit – I think it’s a series of unfortunate events that results in no food, quality or real, being made readily available.

You have to look – legitimately look – at the who, the what, the when, the where, and lastly… the money. It’s last, but it’s probably most important.

You have to, in essence, ask a series of questions. Looooots of questions. And some of the conclusions are offensive, and I’m not oblivious to that; but the core of this is least common denominator-ism. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Think of your neighborhood, or any ‘hood, for that matter – what does the educational makeup of your neighborhood look like? When the teens graduate – do they graduate? – high school, where do they go? Do they stay at home and get jobs, or do they go to college? When they go to college, do they come back and start businesses, or do they move into “the city” and get a job working for someone else? (Do we even make it easy for college graduates to start businesses? They rarely have credit, or even good credit, for a business loan; their college degrees don’t prepare them for self-employment, just entry-level in someone else’s business.) The education level isn’t majority college-educated. It may not even be 35% college-educated. And big brand businesses aren’t flocking to the area. (More on that later.) That limits the kinds of businesses that are created in the area.

So, if you’re only minimally educated, but you want to start your own business… what do you do? You think about the kinds of services you can provide, and how profitable you can make those services:

Can you fix cars? It requires minimal certification, if any, and people know so little about their own cars that they wouldn’t know if you screwed them over or not.

Can you detail cars? Again, easy to learn if you throw yourself into it, and people rarely know how to identify quality work They just want it to look pretty.

Can you style or cut hair? Believe it or not, most salons do not actually have certified cosmetologists. Most (if not all, it’s been years since I’ve checked) state laws only require that the person applying chemicals is certified, not the stylist, so many simply get away with saying the certified person in the room is the one applying chemical treatments. In short, many non-certified persons work in salons. And cutting hair? Listen… almost every third man you’ll meet knows how to cut his own hair… well. Nothing’s stopping that man from owning his own barber shop.

Nails? Think of the last four salons you’ve visited. How many certificates did you see on the wall? Does your state even require certification? Does your state have the budget necessary to double-and-triple check whether your ‘hood’s salons have certified technicians employed?

Can you sell stuff?

You can always sell stuff. All you’ve got to do is account for theft threat of your person (read: keep a gun near the register.) Boom. Store, it is.

But what will you sell? Will you avoid the food route altogether, and simply sell stuff that people need every day? You know that there’s limited money in the area for good, high quality stuff (Are you gonna sell a generic product with minimal quality knife, or some Sur La Table style chef’s choice?); and you know the people tend to prefer to not blow a ton of money on one product, when they could instead buy a bunch of small cheap stuff and think they’re getting more for their money. How do you make this store profitable?

Can you afford to be a specialty store, selling only cookware or only furniture? And, if you consider going that route, who would be your competition? Could your neighborhood afford both stores? Of course they can’t. You can’t. What do you do? You fit every single product imaginable in that store, and call it a “variety” store. You promote it based on its value. You might even call it a dollar store. A 99-cent store. A discount mart. You stockpile wholesale wares that are so inexpensive, that your store is guaranteed to make a profit. Those little wares might sell for a dollar and fifty cents, but they were purchased from a warehouse in a package of 50 for $18. Making $57 profit after spending $18? C’mon. You already know.

But what happens if you decide to not go the mini-Walmart route, and opt to sell food, instead? Enter: the bodega. When Ilived inthe midwest, we called these “corner stores” or “convenient marts.” In fact, I’m pretty sure that was the brand of stores in Cleveland – complete with a red and yellow logo, like another purveyor of glorified fast food.

There are two kinds of consumable substances that a corner store can sell – perishables, and non-perishables. Non-perishables are an easy option – you can stockpile them and store them in your “basement” or “back room” easily, the shelf life is damn-near infinite, and the profit margin – the amount of money that the store makes after making back all the money it spent on buying the product in the first place – is ridiculous.

Walk into a corner store, and try to purchase the food that’s been marketed to you as healthy. Those “Honey Bunches of Oats cereal that are on the shelf for $4.99? Your corner store paid $30 for a 12-pack of those boxes. $2.49 a box. They just, in essence, made 200% profit. That giant can of pineapples that you paid $2.99 for, came in a 24-pack at a rate of about $1.20 a piece. That’s over 200% profit. The canned vegetables? Those cost the store $0.70 a piece to purchase, and are sold at $1.59 a piece.

But… what if you’re not here for the veggies? You wanna act a fool! Okay – pick up a can of pop (“You can’t call myself a new Yorker until you stop saying pop.”) and pay maybe $1 for it. A 36 pack of pop… costs the store $12. You “just want something sweet?” Okay. Pick up a piece of candy. A one hundred pack of Nerds costs $7. Seven dollars. You paid $0.50 for one, though. Those 100 grand bars you paid a dollar a piece for? $0.49 a piece.

Let’s talk perishables, though. If you think about the fact that most corner stores have a basement or a back room that stays stocked with the non-perishable items ready and waiting to replace what’s been sold on the shelves, you also have to consider what that storage room looks like. Is it clean? Is it ventilated? Are there pest traps? Is it exterminated? Is it air conditioned? Do they have a walk-in refrigerator? Is it properly lit? Because it’s mostly processed food – er, non-perishables, it doesn’t attract rodents and insects the way fresh food does. The store saves money not storing produce in that space, because they don’t have to worry about the involved process of maintaining and storing excess produce. Remember, you buy food in bulk, and only some of it can be stored out front.

But if you don’t store it there, where the hell does it go? Do you put it in the refrigerators with the pop and juice? Of course not, that space is for people who want something cold immediately, and that’s good money being thrown away.

Produce is difficult to manage for people who buy it and store it at home, let alone a store with people who are paid to be responsible for it. Produce has to be trimmed. It has to be cut. It has to be cleaned. It has to be watered. It has to be watched; and if it’s ripening, it has to be wrapped in cellophane and Styrofoam. You don’t even have much experience with vegetables; do you know what needs to be cut? What needs to be trimmed? Most corner stores are family stores, meant to sustain any number of family members who all live in one house and work in one store together; do you hire outside people who know produce to handle this? All you know is that people don’t like looking at what appears to be rotting vegetables; do you cut off the rotted parts of the veg and leave the rest out for purchase? Do you position it in the saran wrap just so so that the rotted parts are hidden? Do you spend the money on having a proper produce watering system built?

Or do you say screw it and only sell the minimum number of perishables required for your store to be able to accept WIC?

A flat of salmon can be purchased at these stores for $3/lb… but where do you store it? Do these people even know what to do with salmon? Where do you keep steaks and chicken and the like? Or do you just hold onto some processed deli meat, wrapped and stored for shelf-stability?

This is what results in minimal food availability in the hood. The urban professionals who do, somehow, manage to make it back home… how often are they walking into a bodega and looking for almond milk? Produce? How often are those Buppies heading back into “the city” to shop? Heading out to a thoroughly-gentrified community to buy what they need?

And, if you are one of those buppies in a gentrifying neighborhood, how many of your stores -corner or otherwise – are now making modifications and updating, to appear to be more “upscale?” The stores no longer have, merely,  a consumer base of people who want it as cheap as possible because they need to spread their pennies around; there’s money to be made from people who can afford to expect and, in fact, demand more… and it’s important to keep up with what those people want, before some larger conglomerate comes in and tries to demolish a few homes so they can build a giant box store next door to me.

And, speaking of those big box conglomerate stores, not finding them in your area has less to do with genocide and more to do with capitalism; the question isn’t necessarily “do we want to sell to those negroes?” It’s “do we think our model could be sustainable in that area?” In other words, could this area afford us? If the poorest households in America only make about $15,000 per year, and still only spend 36% of their income on food, can they afford our $7 packages of organic turkey bacon? Or would they find that absolutely ludicrous? If the richest families in America, who earn upwards of $70,000 a year, are spending an average of 9% of their income on food, are they most likely to appreciate my $12 organic 3lb chicken?

The most interesting – and beneficial – part of this for these gentrifying corner stores is the understanding of Engel’s Law, which states that as a household’s income rises, the percentage of that income dedicated to food willdecrease, even if the actual dollar amount rises. You can only eat but so much, but you can spend more on those same products for higher quality. This is why stores gentrify as “money moves in.” They’re trying to benefit from that law. Sheer Capitalism. With a Big C.

This is how you wind up with suspect food quality in the ‘hood. There are ‘hoods like the one I live near, where the community demands non-processed food, and though the stores provide that… they still don’t have much of a handle on caring for the produce. Most would flounder and fail – quickly – if they tried to incorporate perishables in their product base, and it’s a costly blunder. Most don’t consider it even worth it, because their current model is so profitable, and probably won’t bother until competition comes in and does their job better. Entrepreneurship is risky and dangerous… and risk takers are rewarded; those who are comfortable often fail… and need to be bailed out.

But, I digress.

You wanted to know why I think the food is wack in the inner city, but what I really want to know is how we are supposed to circumvent all these events and still help businesses provide such an essential resource to people who no one sees as being worth it? Really, this isn’t about just the inner city; it’s about rural environments, too. Suburban (or suburban-looking) environments get all the benefits; where’s the incentive to take these resources elsewhere? As the Affordable Care Act now makes the health of the nation a collective responsibility, perhaps we should start prioritizing fruits, vegetables and healthy, lean protein sources and incentivizing (read: tax withholdings) businesses that provide such in underserved areas?

I’own know. Talk to your congressional officers about it.

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christine January 3, 2013 - 1:52 PM

And another problem is transportation..having to ride the metro with a bag of chicken leaking..I remember the days of metro to the store and cab ride home…

True. January 3, 2013 - 2:03 PM

A lot of people in the city don’t realize they are extremely close to the open markets, farms, and etc. For instance in Brooklyn there is a working veggie farm that runs solely on volunteers. You even get a small plot of land to grow whatever you want. There are people to help you as well.
Also I remember when I was little that my grandma would bypass all of the corner stores to trek for hours to get to a place that sold fresh food items. I thought it was great fun. I didn’t see the lesson in that then but I most certainly do now.
But the convience does win out and people go to the corner stores, piggly/wiggly, and etc.
I do wonder how many people look for the certificates on the wall at hair/nail shops. Most states don’t require you to have one if you’re only labeled as a ‘braiding’ shop. But there seems to always be one person in there putting dye in someone’s head. Hmm suspect.smh

curlsz January 3, 2013 - 4:41 PM

we have a grocery store chain that tests and studies the hell out of their food sales based on zip code, demographics etc – they even go as far as seeing what brand names are sellers then making their own generic version – when you walk into the one in the highly Jewish neighborhood it’s a lot of organic foods, kosher, really good produce etc – when you walk into the one in the predominately blue collar Mexican neighborhood it’s a lot of pork, tamale husks, lard, dried beans but no organic, at all! There was at one point, but it didn’t sell well so they pulled it.

Rose January 3, 2013 - 5:23 PM

I live in a neighborhood that has become gentrified over the years (BedStuy). It wasn’t until gentrification that I saw both the supermarkets and bodegas start selling healthier products. Not only did they begin to offer organic produce, their non-organic options looked pretty good too. These stores have also gone through renovations to appear more appealing to the white people that are moving in. There, I said it. It wasn’t until the white people came, that the food options improved. I’m not talking about just one or two stores, nearly all of the nearby grocery stores/super markets did a face lift of sorts. If you’re me and a person of color, you will be insulted. Gentrification is a gift and a curse.

Angela January 3, 2013 - 9:09 PM

It’s not just food that makes up a desert in the “hood”, it’s all practical services. Take a look at a middle class neighborhood and how close or how far certain amenties are, and then compare those distances to that in a low income neighborhood.

In my neck of the wood, my city was trying to keep up with the Jones’ by rolling out the red carpet for developers during the housing boom to attract the wealthy and well-to-do. These upper income folks chose to skip over to the neighboring city that is predominantly wealthy and well-to-do. Now there are tons of empty houses and unbuilt lots in that particular area, and all of the shopping future residents were promised never materialized because the companies considered it too risky opening up a supermarket or restaurant.

So it’s aaaaaall about the benjamins, baby, whether it be the “hood” or a working class city trying to shed that status.

ab January 5, 2013 - 6:23 AM

I always thought of it in this way:

1) Many working families in the ‘hood’ are headed by mothers and fathers who have 2 jobs to make ends meet. Many struggle to find time to cook actual meals, now back in the day. You had to find the time or you didn’t eat. But now, with convenience wrapped up in a pop tart. Many opt for the pop tart because it ‘saves’ hours in meal prep and cooking, but its an illusion.
What it gives (a little time) it takes back (bad nutrition, food ailments, ill health, lethargy, e.t.c.)

The other thing I’ve been musing is this
2) Healthy/ real food isn’t necessarily expensive, unhealthy food is just inexpensive.
We forget that our parents sometimes ate exactly the same thing all week.

The cost of real/healthy food helps me control my portions but also what I eat and how often i eat it.

We complain about ‘lack of variety’ when what we really lack are ideas and food literacy.

3) Things not in the hood : NikeTown, Coach store, juniors cheesecake factory, ihop, Macy’s, starbucks.
But we will drive out of our way everyday for a mocha latte cup full of sugar.
New Air jordans? we will queue around the block.

Jaime January 6, 2013 - 2:36 PM

Great read! I just watched a documentary on grocery stores. I never knew that the profit margin is only 1-2% for a grocery store making it cost prohibitive for most business owners to run one. Or even want to run one. You made some great points that really nailed the problem right on the head.

Erika Nicole Kendall January 6, 2013 - 5:02 PM

Yep, and most of that is due to the cost of perishables – produce, meat, dairy, etc. Like, grocery stores have to purchase those things from wholesellers, and then hope to high heaven that it all clears the shelves. (This also contributes to the fudging of expiration dates that often happens.) It’s nuts.

EmpressDoms January 25, 2013 - 7:34 PM

I live in Brownsville (BKLYN) and even though I complain that every new food establishment in the neighborhood is either crown fried chicken or low budget pizza I realize that if you pay closer attention, those 24 hour produce markets are a BLESSING!! They’re relatively cheap, they’re literally open 24 hours and in my area alone there’s about 4 of them located within a 3 block radius. Also, since I live in a neighborhood filled with Caribbeans, there are quite a few Jamaican restaurants (read: Rastafarians) who set up a little corner with fresh made juice and smoothies for wayyy cheaper than what I normally pay when I go to the city. It’s not easy, but if you start walking around your neighborhood a bit more you’d be surprised with what you find.

Erika Nicole Kendall January 27, 2013 - 10:06 AM

They ARE cheap, but my WORD it is of the absolute lowest quality! How do I buy veggies from you and they’re rotting the next day, man? LOLOL

TM April 4, 2013 - 9:09 PM

If the food isn’t in your neighborhood then walk to find it or stock up on the weekends. I am so tired of all of these excuses that people give. God helps those who help themselves. I just lost 18lbs, was never overweight, now wear 28 jeans and look great in a bathing suit. It wasn’t easy, but you have to give up gluten and sugar. You can’t eat dairy. My life was and continues to be veggies, lamb, chicken, fish, nuts, lentils, black eyed peas. It isn’t simply, but what do you really want to be? Stop whining and just do it!

Erika Nicole Kendall April 5, 2013 - 11:59 AM

Yo. If I had a dollar for every single time some “person on the Internet” thinks they’re being profound by telling people some foolishness about how “God helps those who help themselves” and how they need to “stop giving excuses,” I’d be f’ing rich.

This is neither profound nor helpful. Dismissing the things that people see as legitimate barriers, instead of empowering them to be problem solvers is only trolling. Petty, useless, waste-of-server-space-type trolling. And I am not here for it.

It is not whining. If someone feels halted by it, then it needs to be addressed. And, it just so happens that there are legitimate, structural, functional reasons why people won’t find good, qulity produce in the hood and it has nothing – NOT A DAMN THING – to do with people being lazy and whining.

God. Some of you are so pathetic. You see Black people and you see a discussion about why certain areas don’t have certain things and you go into that same self-hating sycophantic bullshit about how they don’t have what they want because they’re “lazy” and “whiners.” Read a freaking book, already.

Nicole August 9, 2013 - 10:37 AM

Lots of truths in this essay. For all the years I’ve moved to this country and lived in the city, I don’t think I’ve ever stepped into a bodega other than to buy a raffle ticket or maybe brown wrapping paper. Luckily some supermarkets are getting on the ball and stocking the “out of the ordinary.” I actually had one manager tell me that customers should request the things they want when he engaged me in conversation after he saw me reaching for a bag of heritage blend… They stock these things in smaller amounts though and sometimes I get the feeling that very few of us are purchasing them. If that’s the case I can see why some may cut their losses and not bother. But I hope they keep it up.

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