As a federal facility, the National Institutes of Health is under statutory obligation to abide by a Great Depression era piece of legislation called the Randolph-Sheppard Act, which gives the visually impaired a “right of first refusal” for certain government contracts. These include vending and retailing operations at federal facilities.
As a result of Randolph-Sheppard, the seven c-store locations scattered around the main NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, are operated by visually impaired proprietors overseen by the Maryland Business Enterprises Program for the Blind (MBEPB).
“The stores are essentially owner-operated by someone who is visually impaired,” explains John Crawford, Food Program Specialist for NIH's Division of Amenities & Transportation Services, who oversees onsite dining operations at NIH.
The operators are identified and trained by the state's department of education (MBEPB is a division of the Maryland Dept. of Education). They then bid for available spaces and are coached and aided by a counselor from the state program.
The space for the stores is provided free of charge, as are utilities and “everything they need to open the door,” says Crawford. The proprietors also get a cut of vending revenues from any machines in a facility that also has one of the c-stores. All vending operations at NIH also have to remit a portion of their revenues to the state to fund the MBEPB program.
The stores themselves operate at a strict profit-and-loss from their operations.