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Healthy corner store aspires to self-sustaining income

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 1, 2012 - The Juice Box, in south St. Louis, was among the organizations First Lady Michelle Obama singled out last year as being part of a new movement to "transform lives and lift up communities" beset by obesity and other preventable health problems.

While still focused on offering nutritious snacks and being a gathering spot for young people, the store has revised its business model to generate income and become self-sustaining.

First, it has obtained 501(c)3 status for its nonprofit arm, known as Juice Inc. This means it is able to seek tax-deductible donations to further its work. Second, it has set up a separate for-profit entity, called Juice Box. This entity is an L3C business, meaning its mission-driven focus and public benefit -- addressing obesity in this case -- takes precedence over earning a large return on investment.

Juice Box owner Shawn McKie says he is "excited to see the field of social enterprise open up to include more players who are using a business strategy to achieve a social mission."

He says the nonprofit business will continue its work on combating childhood obesity. The business entity might pursue loan guarantees, direct investments, or below-market rate leases for additional healthy corner stores, and other mission-related projects.

Both approaches are needed, he says, to boost health literacy and address obesity among hundreds of youngsters in a neighborhood where consumers don't have easy access to nutritious food or knowledge about staying healthy.

"I never came to this business expecting to make a million dollars," says McKie, echoing a view that's common among social entrepreneurs. "To me it's about creating a model -- basically a business in a box -- a chain of healthy corner stores in urban spaces around the country."

Youngsters, he says, "now identify the Juice Box brand as a healthy corner store. They're learning to read nutritional labels. They are asking for apples, they are asking for oranges. (We want to) give young people the opportunity to go beyond simply consuming healthy foods to encourage their peers to do the same. That's what we're doing."

He says some youngsters see the Juice Box as a safe place from gangs and other unseemly street activities. In spite of the number of youngsters gathered in the Juice Box one recent day during the holiday break, the place was as quiet as a library.

"They come inside this designated space to buy healthy drinks and snacks, read magazines about nutrition, learn how to exercise properly and learn about complications associated with obesity and diabetes," McKie says. "This is an example of creating the atmosphere that we've always seen as a one-stop shop for health and wellness."

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.