Convenience stores, usually stocked with high-fat, sugary, salty foods and drinks, have been associated with unhealthy eating habits — even raising the risk of obesity for children who live near them. But for some communities that lack access to grocery stores, corner stores are one of the few food sources in their neighborhoods. 

That’s why a team of researchers at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is launching an app to connect corner store owners with fresh food suppliers in East Baltimore — a city where 62% of residents are Black, and one-in-four lived in a “food desert” in 2015. 

Food insecurity disproportionately impacts Black communities like Baltimore around the nation. Some counties with high Black populations have three times as many corner stores as supermarkets

And overall, one-in-five Black households face limited access to fresh, healthy food options.

How the BUD App Works

The BUD app — part of the Baltimore Urban Food Distribution project — allows suppliers to post their fresh food products for store owners to buy. 

Additional cost-saving features encourage store owners to team up and purchase larger amounts of food at cheaper prices. On top of that, store owners can receive an additional discount for delivering the food to other participating stores. 

Getting fresh food onto corner store shelves hasn’t always been this easy. 

According to Joel Gittelsohn, Ph.D., an international health professor at John Hopkins and a project leader, store owners are typically required to pick up fresh items directly from wholesalers. Whereas, more unhealthy options are delivered by large food distributors at discounted prices. 

“It’s not as simple as ‘These bad store owners aren’t giving healthy foods to the community.’ They’re at a disadvantage when it comes to stocking healthier foods even if they want to,” he told the Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health magazine. 

In places like Atlanta, farmers have stood in the gap for residents in low-income urban areas by providing seasonal fruits and vegetables. 

Similarly, growers in Baltimore told researchers they’re aware of the food crisis and want to sell to corner stores, but don’t know how to make it happen, the magazine reported. 

Emma Lewis, a Ph.D. candidate and BUD researcher, told the Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health magazine, “we try to tap into that and talk to them about market expansion and opportunities on their end to participate.”

What’s Next for the BUD App

The team originally tested the app using a simplified version with two corner stores and one food producer. Both stores agreed to continue the program if it remained up and running.

Now, the team is expanding to 38 corner stores in Baltimore. Researchers will track app usage data, and the apps’ impact on sellers, stores, and shoppers. The main questions they want to answer are: Did stores increase their stock of healthy foods? Did they sell the healthier foods? 

The team also plans to run trials in Washington, D.C. or Detroit, and rural communities. 

“Our biggest goal is for us not to be a middleman, and the app is our way to do that,” Lewis said. “It’s something that we can create, but make adaptable and give to the community.”

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