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Minneapolis may change course on rules about healthy food in convenience stores

November 18, 2018

The Fremont Market, a corner store in north Minneapolis, played a starring role in a 2017 video about how the city is helping people find more produce, protein and dairy products in their neighborhoods.

These days, Fremont Market owner Khaled “Mike” Azem said he’s throwing away more fruits and vegetables than he sells.

“If I could sell the oranges and the apples like the chips, I will take off the chips and sell the oranges,” Azem said. “But now we are not making money. Most of the oranges now go to the trash.”

Since 2014, as part of its “staple foods” ordinance, Minneapolis has required licensed grocery stores, corner shops and convenience stores to stock a variety of healthy foods from 10 categories. The goal was to help consumers who don’t have easy access to grocery stores.

City officials acknowledge that they need to loosen the rules. In 2018, 38 percent of the 250 stores, including supermarkets and small convenience shops, were fully compliant with the ordinance, according to a data from the city’s health department. But another study conducted by the University of Minnesota last year showed that among small stores, only 10 percent were in compliance. The city is now proposing to reduce the required quantities while combining food categories and expanding other varieties acceptable to different ethnic groups.

The changes are in response to store owners’ complaints that they were being forced to stock items that their customers don’t eat, said Kristen Klingler, a public health specialist with the Minneapolis Health Department.

Due to cultural preferences, 50 percent of Asian and 26 percent of East African stores had trouble complying with the cheese requirements, while 50 percent of Asian and 36 percent of Latino stores had trouble with the whole-grain cereal category, according to city data.

The City Council will hold a public hearing on Nov. 26 about the proposed changes to the ordinance.

If it passes, ethnic food stores would not be required to stock items that their customers avoid, such as cheese or milk.

“It has kind of been an evolving process of learning about the cultural dietary preferences of consumers and what stores would like to stock,” Klingler said. “We think that these changes will give stores even more flexibility to stock healthy foods and hopefully increase people’s access to healthy foods across the city.”

As long as these stores substitute the items they don’t want to stock with other nutritional products that their customers traditionally eat, they won’t face penalties, said Daniel Huff, the city’s environmental health director.

Amending the requirements will allow the city not to impose “this Western mentality of what’s nutritious, but actually looking at what’s nutritious,” he said.

“How do we meet the public purpose that we are trying to meet in the way that also meets our other public purposes, which are supporting our business, making sure we are not perpetuating institutional racism or cultural bias,” Huff said. “We want to make sure we are cognizant of cultural differences within grocery stores.”

It’s not just cultural dietary preferences that are making the ordinance unpopular with store owners. They say the city’s ban on sales of menthol tobacco product in convenience stores, an ordinance that took effect in August, is a bigger threat to their business.

Mahmoud Salem, owner of Quick Stop on 3601 Penn Av. N., and Azem said customers who used to come for the menthol cigarettes also used to pick up an apple or a banana along the way. That’s not happening anymore.

“We don’t have the same clientele we used to have couple of months ago when we used to sell menthol cigarettes,” Salem said. “Now those people migrated to different places.”

The Fremont Market, at 3556 Fremont Av. N., was portrayed as a success story as recently as Oct. 15, when Klingler played a promotional video at a City Council committee meeting. The video showed customers buying fresh lettuce, cilantro and other produce at grocery stores in the city.

The camera zoomed in at a cooler in the store, full of fruits and vegetables. It also showed baskets of pineapple, apples, oranges and bananas near the checkout counter. “When we first heard about the ordinance, I was like, ‘How am I gonna do it?’ ” Azem says in the video, which was filmed last year. “But when we tried it, I liked it. It attracted more customers to my store.”

These days, Azem has a different view. The cooler at his store is now sparsely stocked with produce.

Azem said his friends who are in the same business joke about placing artificial fruits in the stores, just to comply with the staple foods ordinance. He said he has laid off two employees.

“I’m trying to close down,” he said. “This [menthol] law killed the business.”

Mukhtar M. Ibrahim • 612-673-4689

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