EAST ST. LOUIS — The parking lot was dark when Marie Franklin and her husband, Sam, last stopped at a corner store near their home. The couple didn't want much from the market that night. But they still strategized before Sam, 49, went inside.
"My husband wouldn't let me go in," Marie Franklin, 57, recalled. "About four or five guys were hanging around the door."
For her, the scene felt all too familiar in a city where it's getting harder to find a safe place to buy milk.
In some neighborhoods across the country, such corner stores often stock more alcohol than food — and poor-quality groceries at that — amid a minefield of violence just outside their doors. Yet especially for many of the country's poorest residents, the shops are among the few options for buying groceries using the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food benefit.
Crime, drug deals scaring some away
Nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, convenience stores make up about 45% of all authorized retailers accepting SNAP benefits, the modern name for food stamps.
This city of fewer than 27,000 people, just across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis, has about three dozen authorized SNAP shops, mostly corner stores, within 89 blocks. But fewer and fewer residents see the shops as a safe place to buy food.
Drug dealers allegedly working in cahoots with corner store owners have become East St. Louis' worst-kept secret, while the smell of stale food greets SNAP shoppers at some front doors. It's so bad that, in some neighborhoods, residents avoid the corner stores at all costs.
"So much goes on in these corner stores now, you just have to be careful," said Nona Owens, 68. "You never know when somebody else has made somebody mad ... And they want to come and shoot."
Food assistance at risk for 3 million
To be sure, not all SNAP-authorized stores nationwide face this problem, and not everyone in East St. Louis uses SNAP benefits. But many residents of this and other low-income communities of southern Illinois are fed up with the violence around their neighborhood stores, even as officials in Washington turn a blind eye to the storefront gunbattles.
Instead, the program keeps getting caught in politics.
While the Obama administration modestly upped the range of items authorized SNAP retailers were required to stock as an effort to help end what are known as food deserts, the Trump administration wants to weaken those requirements so canned spray cheese, pimiento-stuffed olives, maraschino cherries and beef jerky can count as staple foods. Trump administration officials have also proposed budget cuts for the program that could lead to more than 3 million people losing their food assistance.
Amid the federal whipsawing over SNAP, local residents are taking care of the problems themselves, trying to clean up the corner stores in their neighborhoods so they have safe and healthy options.
Those residents and local-food-access advocates regard a new trespassing law passed in East St. Louis as a start. They also are taking notes from activists who pushed for stricter corner and liquor store rules in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Omaha, Nebraska.
Those communities attempted to solve their corner store problems by first addressing the number of alcohol outlets in residential areas. Studies show that alcohol plays a role in 40% of violent crimes.
In the nearby village of Washington Park, Shantez Rias and his business partners are trying to revive the SNAP-authorized store they took over earlier this year. They don't sell alcohol at Charlie's Convenient Market. But they still do business behind seemingly bulletproof windows in the small market known among neighbors as the "Orange Store."
Searching for a solution
North 20th Street in East St. Louis — a thoroughfare marked by a worn "Welcome to Healthy Street" sign — has become a safe zone for food-access advocates who gather every other month to discuss wellness programs, safety and the condition of corner stores in the area.
Most corner stores on their list are less than a half-mile away from public housing, churches and schools. The nearest full-fledged grocery stores are about three miles from most of the neighborhoods in East St. Louis, making them difficult to access for those without cars.
"We really want those corner stores to become responsible," Greg Witherspoon, a community leader, told city councilors a few months ago. "We believe that those corner stores can help to serve fresh fruit and fresh vegetables."
But these days, Amy Funk, a SNAP educator and community organizer, spends less time talking about carrots and apples and more time talking about crime and the density of liquor establishments in the community.
She has spent countless hours poring over heat maps of the region that show high volumes of crime in front of corner stores around East St Louis.
"I started off trying to put broccoli in corner stores," Funk said. "Now I'm in this world."
Today, Rias, one of the Orange Store owners, wants to give his neighbors a better place to shop. While he and his partners hope to obtain an alcohol license eventually, they cleaned up their market by replacing liquor bottles with baby bottles, rice, cereal, meat, cheese and other grocery items.
"It's our time to get our own neighborhood back," Rias said. "We spend enough money around here. If we all come together, we can do it. It's simple: Help each other."
Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. Cara Anthony is a former multimedia reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat.
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