EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — 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 (SNAP) food benefit.
Nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, convenience stores make up about 45 percent 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.”
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 gun battles.
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, Neb.
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 percent 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 Chalie’s Convenient Market. But they still do business behind seemingly bulletproof windows in the small market known among neighbors as the “Orange Store.”
These corner store owners — Rias, Rocky Miller and Martin Cooper Jr., themselves former corner boys — know the violence is not an easy problem to solve. They set up shop with a clear understanding of how quickly a fight can escalate when outsiders cross “enemy lines.”
“I don’t care what store you’re at,” Miller said after residents complained about crime at local corner stores. “That’s one thing we can’t prevent.”
And the so-called bulletproof windows the owners stand behind? They have bullet holes in them. Customers use one of the holes to slide in change under a handwritten sign, “Tip the Cook.”
A hidden stream of income
East St. Louis residents Lakeesha Thomas, 42, and her niece, Jordan Thomas, 22, were shopping in one of those convenience stores around 8 p.m. on a recent September night when shots were fired outside.
“I actually wanted to crawl in a cooler,” Lakeesha Thomas said. “Even the guys who worked in the store took cover because the building was getting hit with bullets.”
The sound of gunfire that night came as no surprise to Jordan Thomas, a SNAP recipient with an infant son. She has grown accustomed to it and the unwelcoming men who stand outside corner stores where she still regularly shops.
Such young men who huddle outside corner stores in East St. Louis were identified as a problem long before the city passed an ordinance in June that could potentially end the drug trade happening in plain sight.
“These people are out here selling drugs in front of the place,” said Ontourio Eiland, the city’s assistant police chief. “And that’s why the citizens are scared sometimes to get their milk, eggs and their cereal for their kids.”
Just about everyone in this city has heard whispers about the hidden stream of income some corner store owners have allegedly received from drug dealers.
“If they gave the owner protection or money or something, he, kind of, turned his head to it,” Police Chief Kendall Perry told Kaiser Health News.
Rias, who said he has been both a drug dealer outside a store and now a store owner, defended other local corner store owners, explaining that most “don’t mess with drugs.”
“That’s not how they move,” Rias said. “This is their hustle, these little stores.”
And the mayor, Robert Eastern III, is bewildered by the men standing outside corner stores and contributing to the city’s food and crime problem.
“Business owners may be intimidated or they condone it, I don’t know,” Eastern said. “We’re going to figure out a way to get our corners back. And make East St. Louis safe.”
The loitering prompted Perry to back the new criminal trespassing ordinance this year. A previously approved anti-loitering rule wasn’t effective, Eiland said.
Yet few residents know about the rule change. And, even with it in place, an up-and-coming rapper was shot and killed outside an East St. Louis gas station and convenience mart in September.
In some other parts of the country, the efforts have been more aggressive. As of June 4, liquor stores in residential areas of Baltimore were ordered to stop selling alcohol, leaving them to find other products to sell instead or shut down.
In 2017, Philadelphia city leaders cracked down on corner store establishments known there as “stop-and-gos.”
And in 2012, city officials in Omaha, Nebraska, passed what’s known as a “good neighbor ordinance,” which allows the city to pull the occupancy permits of liquor establishments.
East St. Louis food access advocates now want elected officials to put a cap on the number of liquor licenses issued. They also want code enforcement officials to speak up when corner store owners break the rules.
Calling for help
It’s not just the shootings and crime in front of corner stores that residents of low-income neighborhoods are complaining about.
Documents obtained by KHN through a public records request show that, in 2018, the East Side Public Health District that covers East St. Louis and several neighboring communities received more than a dozen complaints about poorly maintained corner stores and spoiled food in the markets.
“Some of these stores, they’ve got buckets in the middle of the floor catching water, then you get your meat order standing next to it,” Lakeesha Thomas said. “It’s disgusting.”
Local health department officials can give troubled markets what’s known as a risk control plan, according to the documents, which requires health inspectors to visit stores more frequently.
But the stores licensed to offer SNAP food benefits rarely face much federal oversight outside of fraud investigations. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) occasionally checks the food inside, not the crime outside.
Officials from SNAP, the largest nutrition assistance program administered by the USDA, may visit stores for the reauthorization that occurs every five years. The Government Accountability Office noted in a 2018 report that FNS officials planned to visit some stores annually for reauthorization but “said they did not follow through with those plans.”
Contractors working for FNS conduct occasional spot inspections. According to the USDA, they note when food is out of date and assess inventory that does not appear to be moving.
“While FNS does not have direct oversight over food quality and safety, the agency recognizes shoppers’ concerns over the quality and safety of food at SNAP retailers,” according to a USDA statement provided by agency spokesman Tony Craddock Jr. “SNAP-authorized retailers are expected to follow all state and local laws, including health requirements.”
But Myla Oliver-Blandford, assistant administrator of Environmental Health Programs at East Side Health District, said her department doesn’t receive reports about the stores from FNS and doesn’t share her department’s local findings with federal officials.
Neither agency addresses the violence that springs up at the stores. Minimal communication among government agencies, little oversight of corner stores and limited policing leave residents feeling as if they are fending for themselves.
Corner stores topped the list of public places residents of one Southern Illinois neighborhood said they avoided because of safety concerns, according to a 2018 federally funded Community-Based Crime Reduction survey.
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 3 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.”