The fallout continues over comments Councilman Marion Barry made about Asian-owned stores in Ward 8, calling them “dirty shops.” Barry has since issued an apology, but a coalition of local and national Asian American groups have called for more meaningful engagement.
Part of Barry’s follow-up comments focused on the unhealthy foods such stores sell, and he called for the owners to sell healthier foods and fix up their stores.
Gary Cha, owner of Yes! Organic Market and former president of the Korean American Grocers Association, appeared on Monday’s The Kojo Nnamdi Show to discuss Barry’s comments and relations between black and Asian communities in D.C.
Cha spoke with DCentric after the show and reiterated that a common perception of store owners among customers is that whatever goes into the register is profit. But many take home only 6 to 7 percent of sales, Cha said. If a store makes $1 million a year, the owners take away about $60,000 for their families.
“These are people who are barely getting by. I know several of them that to make ends meet, they don’t even have health insurance,” Cha said. “So when we ask them to renovate and do this and that, they probably don’t have the financial ability to do that.”
Stocking up with healthier foods, particularly fresh produce, does require investment by store owners. Refrigeration units are needed, which can be costly and difficult to accommodate in small stores. Also, small stores may not qualify for wholesale produce prices.
Nonprofit D.C. Central Kitchen runs a program that addresses these problems. The Healthy Corners program uses a $300,000 grant from the city to regularly deliver fresh produce to corner stores throughout D.C.’s food deserts. Nine of the participating stores are in Ward 8.
But rather than just focus on the lack of health foods in such stores, Barry singled out Asian-owned stores. By bringing highlighting race as an issue, Barry took the discussion beyond pure economics. So did a number of callers to The Kojo Nnamdi Show who complained that Asian retailers are rude or treat customers poorly.
Cha said that not all Asian storeowners have bad relationships with the community, such Martin Luther King Grocery’s Peter Cho (whom, coincidentally, Barry referred to as “a good Asian” over the weekend). Cho runs a regular back-to-school event in Ward 8, giving away backpacks to neighborhood kids. He also participates in Healthy Corners.
Communication issues aren’t a problem just for “Asian retailers, but pretty much all immigrants in the community,” Cha said. “The immigrants have the same issue where there’s a language barrier, and also the cultural differences they haven’t quite grasped. It’s just a process they go through. I don’t know how to close that gap real quickly.”
One thing Cha does suggest: if you want to see a different kind of product in your store, such as multigrain bread, try asking the store owner to carry it.
“Any time there’s a dialogue going back and forth, it helps,” Cha said.