Nonprofit grocery store creates an oasis in Pennsylvania ‘food desert’
A nonprofit grocery store recently opened its doors in the struggling community of Chester, Pa.
Fare & Square has a goal of providing the city’s 35,000 residents with a place to purchase healthy, locally produced food. The town, a former shipyard and auto-manufacturing hub, had been without a grocery store for more than a decade.
Along with affordable fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products, the bright new store has brought a measure of hope to the small city since its grand opening in September, say patrons and employees.
And its business model has the potential to eventually be replicated in other poor communities throughout the country, some say.
“We came to the realization that people in economically challenged communities have a burning desire for normalcy, and they want access to food like all other Americans,” said Bill Clark, who is president and executive director of Philabundance, a nonprofit hunger-relief organization, who came up with the idea for the store seven years ago.
“Getting food to the poor is the same model as getting food to the wealthy,” he said.
But Clark found some powerful nonprofit and government backers, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to help fund the $7 million project.
Chester, located in the Delaware Valley, had been designated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a food desert: an area where a substantial share of residents lack access to grocery stores or other sources of healthy, affordable food.
It is a lack felt in many places, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. In Washington, D.C. for instance, only a handful of the city’s roughly 40 full-service grocery stores serve Wards 4, 7 and 8. The USDA estimates that about 13.5 million Americans live in food deserts nationwide.
“Food deserts are one of the most pervasive problems plaguing cities across the country and are a large, troublesome and growing phenomenon,” Clark said.
“Once we identified the areas of greatest need in the Delaware Valley, it was a meeting with Congressman Bob Brady that spurred us to select Chester as the site of the nation’s first nonprofit grocery store. Chester has been without a grocery store for far too long, and we are so proud to bring the first grocery store to Chester,” he said.
A lack of access to a healthy food source negatively impacts nearly all aspects of the community as a whole. Clark said he hoped bringing a grocery store to Chester would be a major and necessary step in improving the health and living conditions for the community.
The store, which boasts produce, seafood, deli, dairy and frozen food departments, accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, which are known as food stamps. And while anyone can shop at the store, low-income shoppers receive special benefits.
A store program called the “Carrot Club” provides members with a variety of promotions and discounts. Members whose household incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level receive 7 percent credit on their purchases in the form of “Carrot Cash,” which can be used towards future store purchases.
Clark emphasized the fact that he did not want to give food away: “What we want to do is treat our clients with the respect and dignity of a customer and not a charity case.”
Prior to September, Chester residents had little choice in where they shopped or what they ate. They either had to rely upon the narrow choices offered by small convenience stores, travel outside the city to purchase food or take what they were given at the local food bank without having any say in the types of food they received.
“People pay an extremely high price for free food but the cost is not in dollars, it is in self-pride and choice,” Clark said.
In addition to providing the community with a place to shop, Fare & Square has also created 82 new jobs and nearly all of its employees live in Chester. To many of its customers and employees, it is also much more than just a place to work and purchase food.
“People in the community are really proud of this store and I’m really proud of this store,” said employee Bakirah Johnson. “In Chester, it’s the talk of the town.”
According to Johnson, store employees handed out apples and oranges to the kids for Halloween and most of the children “had not seen food like that in so long that they didn’t even care about not getting candy. Little things you don’t think of are a big deal.” In fact, she said many of the kids were so excited that they wanted to eat the fruit immediately and Johnson happily obliged, cleaning the fruit upon request and helping them peel dozens of oranges in the process.
The efforts made by Fare & Square to improve the lives of its customers has not gone unnoticed by shoppers. “In the end, it’s all about empowerment,” observed Chester resident Carole Burnett.
As for Clark, he said he hopes the Chester Fare & Square will not remain one of America’s only nonprofit grocery stores for long. Food deserts across the country might be transformed by similar efforts, he believes.
“It’s been a huge undertaking but if we can figure out how to make this work, it’s a game changer.”
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