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Wanted: inner-city supermarkets

A fresh idea brings healthy food to low-income neighborhoods.

By Sarah More McCannContributor for The Christian Science Monitor / June 27, 2008

Philadelphia's First Oriental Market received Fresh Food Financing to be able to provide local shoppers fresh, healthy food.

Courtesy of David Adler/The Food Trust

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Grocer Jeff Brown put a lot of sweat into his ShopRite supermarket in inner-city Philadelphia: He built a pork-free meat room for Muslim customers, stocked the aisles with the Jamaican and African cuisine that neighbors requested, and taught job skills to the hires new to the workforce.

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Despite skyrocketing commodity prices, Mr. Brown says the store – a venture that he never could have opened without a loan from Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative – is making money.

Brown’s ShopRite is more than just a driver of urban development. It’s part of a major public-health program aimed at squashing obesity and related concerns such as heart disease and diabetes.

“There aren’t any other supermarkets within two to three miles,” he says. Without his store, the patrons “would probably eat at McDonald’s or shop at a drug store or the dollar store for food – none healthy or fresh.”

Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI) is believed to be the nation’s only statewide public-private funding initiative dedicated to opening grocery stores in underserved areas. In three years, the $120 million fund has provided “gap financing” – money beyond what a grocer normally could receive in grants and loans – to open or update 52 supermarkets statewide, creating some 4,000 jobs in the process.

From its inception, the plan has been admired by policy experts for its merging of economic and public-health innovations. But as gasoline and food prices continue to rise, the FFFI is attracting increased attention.

“What people are forced to do in some communities is travel to supermarkets in suburban locations, and the cost of gasoline has risen dramatically,” says Ken Klothen, a deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, the state arm of the partnership.

Diet was the main concern in 2002 when an employee of the Food Trust – a Philadelphia group dedicated to increasing access to healthy, affordable food – stopped state Rep. Dwight Evans on his evening walk. Public health and economic development initiatives existed in many low-income Philadelphia areas. But the ends weren’t meeting, and residents’ food shopping options were still drugstores, expensive corner shops, or fast food.

“We hadn’t had a real policy about food access that was coherent, and the big challenges are the issue of obesity, the generation of jobs, and community transformation,” Mr. Evans says.

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