Natural Foods Merchandiser

Store Finds Link Between Health Food And Mental Health

In business, it's sometimes difficult to find a store that's not solely concerned with the bottom line. It's also rare to find a retail store that relies on grant money for its operations. But to find a store that adheres to both and is staffed with patients from a mental health facility is downright unheard of—until now.

Bell Health Foods in Bismarck, N.D., operates in conjunction with the state's Mental Health Association to provide a means for the mentally ill to work in a retail setting. With up to five "clients" (the term for patients who work at the store) being trained at the same time, some may think that Store Manager Belinda Niebel may feel under the gun. Not so, says Niebel, the store's only full-time employee, who welcomes the challenge of running the store while training the clients.

"We help our clients to build self-esteem and confidence," Niebel says. "We try to provide them with a gentle and safe place to help them to develop their skills and themselves at the physical, mental and spiritual levels."

Niebel describes the Bell Health Foods store as a "mom-and-pop shop," with a few twists. Founded in June 2000, the store relied heavily on grant money to stay afloat in its first year. The grant, provided through the Mental Health Association in North Dakota, gave funding for the store's equipment and salaries. As of November 2001, MHAND was still searching for more federal grant money. And until more funding is found, Bell Health Foods cannot afford to train any more clients, Niebel says. The MHAND is also researching a grant from Paul Newman Enterprises.

Before Bell Health Foods opened, its location was used as a volunteer co-op for about 10 years, says MHAND Director Rose Stoller, who helped initiate the client-training program. When the co-op was set to close in June 2000, the MHAND seized what it thought was a golden opportunity.

"One of our goals is to remove the stigma of people with mental illnesses," Stoller says. "They're just like us. We felt this venture to be a good way in which to achieve that goal."

"Our priority is to get our clients into the job market," says Shelly Dillenger, an employee of MHAND who acts as a liaison between the MHAND and Bell Health Foods. "The store is able to show the community that mental illness isn't scary."

The MHAND and Bell Health Foods have four goals in line with their philosophy, Stoller says. Both want to improve the quality and quantity of service for the mentally ill; to promote mental health in everyone; to eliminate the negative stigmas associated with the mentally ill; and to enhance the research, treatment, prevention and cures for mental illnesses. These ideals serve as the foundation for Bell Health Foods.

"Employers are overlooking a wonderful workforce of people with disabilities," Stoller says, also noting that up to 70 percent of disabled Americans are unemployed. Stoller says the MHAND is also exploring a temporary aid plan that would help the store employ former welfare recipients.

"A lot of [former welfare recipients] are struggling to find a place in the world of employment," Stoller says. "Many have disabilities that make it doubly hard on them to find a job."

Yet since its inception, the program has helped 14 mentally challenged clients to successfully complete the 50 hours of required training.

"One of my first clients came into the store and told me that he just got a full-time job. He was so happy. It just doesn't get any better than that," Niebel says. "If I can be even a small part of their successes, then I feel good."

Bell Health Foods mostly relies on groceries, which account for 80 percent of its stock. The remaining 20 percent is split evenly between the store's health and beauty section and its new supplements section. Niebel says the store buys local and organic for such items as eggs, buffalo meat and vegetables. Bell Health Foods' advertising is based primarily on word of mouth, but the MHAND is looking to develop a Web site for the store. Also, the store does coupon promotions and special orders to keep its loyal customers coming back. But, Niebel says, "it's the [client] program that has brought people back."

While the store hasn't received much attention outside of Bismarck, Niebel is quick to point out that she doesn't need any trophies to measure the store's success.

"We're fairly new, so we're counting on our customers as our awards," she says. "We have such a following of customers, despite our proximity to some chain grocery stores that are less than a mile away.

"Besides, we can do special orders for anybody," she adds, saying that such sales practices are essential to strong customer service. Such services, Niebel says, should be considered standard in the business of organic foods.

"People who eat natural foods are nicer people," Niebel says.

Jared Chlebus is a senior journalism student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo.

Bell Health Foods
609 Memorial Highway
Bismarck, ND 58504
General Manager: Belinda Niebel
Members: 400 plus
Founded: June 2000
Employees: one full-time, with varying numbers of "clients"
Retail Space: 240 square feet
Annual Sales: $60,000

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 1/p. 50

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