The Corner Store and Nostalgia

In today’s News & Observer Ned Barnett argues in favor of a zoning change to bring back the 1940’s corner store as recommended by Jonathan Melton and others on Council.

Being born in 1958 I remember corner stores. There was one called Zdarkos. In fact, the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Zdarko, lived across the street from us. They easily walked to work every day. The store was their business and their livelihood. It was located one block away on our town’s main street – not directly in the neighborhood. In fact all the many “corner stores” were located on main streets. To survive economically, they needed on-street parking where people could stop and run in for a quick purchase. And they needed to be on a street that provided enough traffic to stay in business.

As kids we went there to buy candy, soda (which we called pop) and, I hate to admit this, my mom sent us there with notes to buy cigarettes. And, yes, they sold them to us and I dutifully carried them home. Remarkably, I never smoked. But my mom, who I miss dearly, died of lung cancer in 1993. She was 58 – way too young.

Today’s zoning change is being driven by unrealistic nostalgia. Mr. Barnett and my colleagues on Council envision a utopia where people walk and bike to the corner store to buy healthy foods and beverages. Some, they say, might even offer cooking classes. The prediction is that they would not be the typical convenience store with gas pumps and people who loiter.

Unfortunately, Mr. Barnett and my colleagues ignore reality. In 2014 Michelle Lent, a professor in clinical psychology at Temple, along with several other researchers published an article in Public Health Nutrition entitled, “Corner store purchases made by adults, adolescents and children: items, nutritional characteristics and amount spent.” For their study they examined 9,238 purchases of 20,244 items at 192 corner stores in Philadelphia. They examined the foods and beverages purchased.

Lent and others found that consumers purchased and average of 2.2 items per visit. The items were split between an average of 1.3 “foods” and 0.9 “beverages” containing and average of 666 calories. The breakdown in these purchases is revealing and leads them to conclude, “Obesity prevention efforts may benefit from including interventions aimed at changing corner store food environments in low-income, urban areas.”

Let’s take a look at the breakdown in purchases. Overall, beverages were purchased during 65.9% of store visits and 61% of the beverages were sugar sweetened drinks with the top beverage being regular soda. After beverages the top items purchased were chips, prepared food items, pastries, and candy. Fruits and vegetables came in at the bottom representing only 2.3% of the items purchased.

When broken out by age the results were even more striking. For children the top purchases were beverages, chips, candy, pastry, and ice cream causing fruits and vegetables to drop to 1.0%. Adolescents were similar with fruits and vegetables at 1.3%.

Soon, Council will consider Jonathan Melton’s proposal to change zoning to allow corner stores in R-4, the designation for residential neighborhoods. The promise is unrealistic 1940’s nostalgia that will magically bring healthy foods that people will carry home on their bicycles.

Instead these will, in all likelihood, be quick, convenience purchases for high calorie snack foods. People will continue to drive to Wegmans, Harris Teeter, and other grocery stores for their weekly meals. And we will continue to see our neighborhoods eroded with zoning changes to allow an increasing number of business uses.