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Amid Dollar Store Moratorium, Focus Turns To Cleveland's Corner Stores

Cleveland City Council recently passed a moratorium on building permits for new dollar stores, saying they don’t provide healthy food options and take business away from locally owned convenience stores.

Many of these locally owned convenience stores are trying to be a healthy resource for the community, such as Parkwood Drive Thru in Glenville. The shop sells typical convenience store products, like cigarettes and alcohol - as well as healthier options like produce, fresh food and rice bowls.

“We are part of the community. People know us as family," said Jim Suleiman, whose family has owned the store for more than 20 years. "I look out for you, you look out for me kind of thing."

About five years ago, the store started offering healthier alternatives, like smoothies and fruit cups, Suleiman said. For many residents in Glenville and other neighborhoods, getting access to fresh produce is a challenge, he said.

“If you’re not at a fast food [restaurant], you really have nothing around the neighborhood," he said. "And if [customers] want to ever venture out to University Circle, there are other restaurants, but most of the people in the community stick around the community, and a lot of them are on foot," he added.

While the New Eastside Market did recently open in Glenville, Suleiman said food options are limited in the neighborhood, and that many people end up going to a corner store, getting transportation to a grocery store, or walking to a dollar store.

“Dollar stores definitely do take away business from us. I mean, I can’t compete with their prices," he said.

Unlike local delis and drive thrus, dollar stores aren’t known for their grocery options. Fresh produce takes up less than 15% of shelf space in most small box stores, according to the recent resolution passed by Cleveland City Council. 

Dollar General spokesperson Crystal Ghassemi said she disagrees that small box stores don’t provide healthy options. She said they sell some components of a healthy diet, such as milk, eggs and frozen vegetables. She also said the moratorium will hurt the community.

“We think that the addition of each new dollar store provides positive economic impact through jobs ... and really helps the customers, who are our main focus, in being able to save money on the things that they need and replenish most often,” Ghassemi said.

She also said some Dollar General locations do offer fresh produce, and one such store was set to open soon in Cleveland’s Old Brooklyn neighborhood. That has now been postponed due to the moratorium, she said.

Other discount chains did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Some residents said Cleveland has enough dollar stores already, like Deborah Gray, who lives in Buckeye. She worked with the city to bring local store Simon’s Supermarket to the neighborhood in 2018 after a Giant Eagle relocated, leaving many residents without immediate access to a grocery store.

“We didn’t care what store came here," she said. "We wanted a store that was high quality and [has] great food for the community.”

Local stores like Simon’s are more willing to listen to community input than national corporations, she said, which is one reason why she doesn’t want any more dollar stores.

“They’re making so much money off these communities that they’re in, but they’re not giving back. They’re not engaged," Gray said.

But starting a new store from the ground up isn’t always the most effective way to increase food access, said Morgan Taggart from Case Western Reserve University’s Prevention Research Center. Through the  FARE Project, a food access outreach program, she works with existing corner stores like Suleiman’s to figure out what healthy options customers want, and how to get them on their shelves.

“[We are] working with the community assets we already have, figuring out how to work in partnership with those stores in order to really make sure that their inventory reflects all of the options a community is looking for, healthy items included,” she said.

Taggart’s team also does cooking demonstrations, and she said it’s easier to work with locally owned corner stores than corporately owned dollar stores for these community events.

Suleiman said the reality is, healthy food can be expensive to provide. But with many of his customers struggling with health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure, to him, offering healthy food items is an investment in the community.

“I wish other store owners, any small business would try to find a healthier alternative for the community," he said. "At least have that thought of – you know what, let me keep this healthier option just to give my customers the chance to choose whether or not they want to be healthy. Let them choose. Having that option did help, I can say, a few customers eat better.”

The city’s dollar store moratorium ends this November, and in the meantime, officials are working to come up with small box store regulations that aim to promote the health and well-being of Cleveland neighborhoods.

 

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