Bringing Fresh Life to Food Deserts

For most of us, a supermarket is not a particularly remarkable commodity. But in underprivileged neighborhoods across America, simply paying the bus fare to reach the nearest supermarket can be a heavy burden for residents. As a result, families often resort to buying meals at fast food restaurants or poorly stocked liquor and convenience stores. Forget about cage-free eggs and organic apples — in these neighborhoods, residents are lucky to come across a fresh piece of fruit. That’s why Jeffrey Brown, President and CEO of Brown’s Super Stores, Inc., has made it his mission to open ShopRite supermarkets in areas previously designated as food deserts.

A food desert is an area in the United States where fresh, healthy food is not easily accessible. Yet providing nutritious food is as critical as ever. Nearly 1 in 3 American children is overweight or obese — and these numbers are even higher in African American and Hispanic neighborhoods. In these areas, the opening of a supermarket has the power to revitalize a community, but despite the pressing need for supermarkets in low-income, urban areas, store owners are unlikely to start an inner-city business due to the higher costs of land and employee training, as well as security concerns.

In response to these obstacles, Philadelphia-based organization The Food Trust created the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a first-of-its-kind grant and loan program that would serve as a model for the nationwide Healthy Food Financing Initiative. In 2004, The Food Trust partnered with ShopRite CEO Jeffrey Brown to open a ShopRite in southwest Pennsylvania, and since then, Brown has opened five other stores in areas once classified as food deserts. ShopRite has also received tax credits through the New Market Credit Program, which was established by Congress in 2000. The program has allocated over $33 billion to start or expand businesses and real estate in low-income areas. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of these businesses are supermarkets.

To remedy this, Brown has suggested that the government commit a significant sum of money to the problem. In his experience, opening supermarkets in inner-city areas is economically unfeasible without the help of grants and subsidies. However, once opened, Brown says, his urban stores have done just as well as his suburban locations, with some even selling similar amounts of produce.

The stores can remain profitable despite lower prices due to the high volume of customers that densely populated areas provide, as well as a list of products designed specifically for the needs of the community. “We had to research where our customers came from and we had to come up with food solutions to really sell them what they want,” says Brown on the website for his non-profit organization, Uplift Solutions. “A big part of our increased revenue is we were selling to them for who they are.”

Brown’s work has not gone unrecognized. Philadelphia Business Journal has named Brown’s Super Stores, Inc. “Best Employer in Philadelphia” for the past two years, and the White House has recognized and honored Brown on more than one occasion. Meanwhile, the message is spreading. Zoning and financial incentives like those that allowed Brown to open his ShopRites have been adopted by other states, including New York, with its Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program.

Limited access to food is not the only cause of poor nutrition in low-income families, though. In fact, recent studies suggest that the relationship between supermarket accessibility and healthy eating has been exaggerated. Even when healthy options are available, poor families often favor products that have more calories per dollar, and since 1978, the prices of fruits and vegetables have increased around 40 percent. The price of soda, on the other hand, has decreased over 30 percent.

Some families also lack the appliances, such as refrigerators and stoves, necessary to prepare and store fresh food, while others still lack knowledge of the benefits that fresh food can provide. ShopRite does not offer the solutions to all of these obstacles, but it does allow low-income communities to take a big step towards healthier, more sustainable eating. Who needs Superman when you’ve got supermarkets?