WASHINGTON — On the Southwest side of South Capitol Street sits Elmira Market - a business that feels like family.
“We definitely see our customer base as family,” said Daweit Gebru.
Gebru and his brother took over the business from their parents two years ago. A decision his father made in 2011 has become an investment in the health and well-being of families in Bellevue.
“We wouldn’t have made the jump to actually start bringing in the fruits and vegetables here because nobody asked for it,” explained Gebru. “Sometimes when nobody asks for it you don’t think to go ahead and grab it.”
But DC Central Kitchen pitched a program that was a win-win. Supply fresh fruits and vegetables to customers at a low price, but the non-profit would handle the infrastructure and inventory for the program.
Through the Healthy Corners program, DC Central Kitchen provides corner stores with a cooler full of fresh produces and fresh cut and packaged fruit. Elmira Market has since expanded its offerings to potatoes, onions even frozen veggies. Gebru said customers are embracing the change.
“Especially children or younger people around my age they do want healthier options like this,” he said.
There are still just three big box grocery stores for over 165,000 people who live East of the River. Many advocates say it’s no coincidence that DC Health reports the average life expectancy in this neighborhood is 21 years less than parts of the District flush with grocery stores and fresh food options.
“This program is a small step in leveling playing field and decreasing the inequities in food access in our city,” said Mike Curtin, DC Central Kitchen’s CEO.
“One of the first things we were trying to combat was the worn out or lazy, simple-minded tropes or racist stereotypes that people who live in marginalized communities won’t eat fresh foods. Everyone wants to feed their family health food and if we can provide a way a consistent way to access fresh, healthy food in a dignified way that will go a long way to creating a better community for everyone.”
Healthy Corners keeps prices affordable – at Elmira and 28 other markets in DC – customers can use SNAP or DC WIC benefits to get free food with their purchase. The program is a huge success. It’s now in 53 corner stores throughout the city and sells 8,000 units a week.
“In teeny little corner stores that some are no bigger than a couple of hundred square feet encased in bullet proof glass. So, you cannot tell me that if you are marketing this product in an affordable, dignified way in a larger setting you will have customers, you will have a market we have proven that,” said Curtin.
“I feel like we are making a change and I hope we can be better,” added Gebru.
Elmira Market hopes to expand its fresh food options, in two years they plan to renovate the storage into a kitchen. The owners will partner with the non-profit Green Within and The Well farm in Oxon Run Park to offer fresh food, meals, and cooking demonstrations for the community.