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Somali halal grocery stores make it through the pandemic

Somali halal grocery stores play an important role in shaping, improving and strengthening local food environments in Minnesota. Yet there is little known on how these stores manage to operate sustainably during the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding the factors that enable Somali food retailers to operate sustainably during public health and financial crisis is very important. Extension has resources — such as educational programs, financial incentives and grants — that can be used to create healthier food environments. Moreover, Extension has the means to work with racially and ethnically diverse populations, small businesses, and nonprofits to identify the most efficient allocation of these resources to support local communities.

Strong connections to the Somali community, prior business experience, and good understanding of the market are some of the factors that allow Somali grocery store owners to sustain their businesses during these challenging times. Store owners tap into their customers’ demand to stay in business. They keep their customers satisfied by providing culturally relevant and affordable food products. Store owners also use their knowledge of ethnic food products. They select the food brands that their customers familiar with and trust. These efforts help store owners to remain profitable.

Many Somali grocery store owners possess valuable prior experience in the food industry, “In Somalia, our family owned a small grocery store. I with my two brothers and one sister worked there. I learned a lot working in that store” said one store owner. Another owner stated “I learned how to manage my store even when my regular customers had difficult time paying for their food products. I let them to take what they need and pay me when they can. We need to support each other in difficult times.” For some owners, a food retail business is a continuation of their family tradition that they must be preserved.

Some halal stores owners are aware of the challenges within the surrounding food environment and are able to use these challenges to their advantage. One owner quickly recognized unmet demand for fresh halal goat meat. He established connections with a few local livestock farmers and arranged the processing of halal meat at a nearby slaughterhouse to ensure a continuous supply of fresh local halal goat meat for his customers. For some time, his store was the only store in the St. Cloud area that sold fresh halal goat meat. The Somali grocery store owners are resilient entrepreneurs who actively reconstruct their local food environments and seize growth opportunities.

Serdar Mamedov, M.S., CHES® 
Extension educator, health & nutrition

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