Why Convenience Retailers can Help Make America Healthier

By Frank Beard on Monday, February 26, 2018

Imagine trying to purchase healthful food, but discovering that few options are available. That’s the daily reality for many Americans—and not just the millions who live in food deserts, lacking access to quality grocery stores.

Kwik Trip

We live in a fast-paced, modern society where one’s lifestyle and commitments can be nearly as important as where they live. 135 million Americans drive a car to and from work each day—generating $212 billion in yearly commerce—and what they eat is determined by more than whether or not a Whole Foods exists near their home. We work long hours, multiple jobs, shuttle children to and from extracurricular activities, and some of us even work non-traditional hours. Intuit, the owner of TurboTax, estimates that 34% of the US workforce participates in the so-called gig economy—compiling together an assortment of independent, freelance work.

This means that whether you drive part-time for a ridesharing company or have to take the kids to soccer practice, eating on-the-go may be the rational choice. Indeed, the FDA estimates that one-third of Americans’ calories come from outside of the home.

But what if the available options aren’t particularly healthy?

I understand this challenge all too well. As I explained in my last blog post, a previous job required me to travel across the United States four to five days every week. From Detroit to rural Appalachia and parts of the Mississippi Delta, I’ve been in places where the options were sparse. The local convenience store was sometimes the only choice.

But this made me wonder: what if convenience retailers are part of the solution?

We often speak of them as part of the problem, but think about it: convenience retailers are located in every community across the United States, and 93% of Americans live within 10 minutes of one. There is perhaps no better option for a busy, time-starved individual.

The industry itself evolved out of the desire to provide Americans with convenient access to daily needs in a way that fits their lifestyles. When “Uncle Johnny” Jefferson Green ran the Southland Ice Dock in Dallas, during 1927, he noticed that people would purchase ice for their refrigerators at home. Since the dock was already open after the grocery stores closed, he figured it made sense to also sell milk, bread, and eggs. Southland later expanded this concept to other locations, set the hours from 7:00am to 11:00pm, and rebranded in 1946 under the name 7-Eleven.

7-Eleven Fruit DisplayToday, the convenience retailing industry consists of more than 154,000 locations across the United States. But Americans need more than ice and a few basics. Technomic has found that 53% of convenience store customers would purchase more foodservice items if healthful options were available. And according to a recent report from the USDA, millennials—now the United States’ largest generation— prioritize convenience and prepared meals. They spend comparatively less time on food preparation than older generations. 

Fortunately, many convenience retailers have already begun responding to these demands. 7-Eleven recently announced the creation of private-label, cold-pressed juice. Regional leaders like Sheetz, Wawa, and Buc-ee’s have expansive, touchscreen-based foodservice menus that include healthful offerings. In Springfield, MO, I recently discovered Farm 2 Counter—an independent convenience retailer that has built its entire brand around quality, nutritious food. And Iowa residents who live near Kwik Star locations are no stranger to avocados, bananas, and other fresh produce.

Challenges do persist, but many advocates now recognize the opportunity presented by convenience retailing. The Partnership for a Healthier America—an organization founded by our former First Lady, Michelle Obama—actively works with convenience retailers and distributors to increase the availability of healthful options in ways that make smart business sense.

In my next post, I’ll dive deep into the Partnership for a Healthier America’s model—and how working together has helped drive positive change in a way that benefits everyone.