An Oasis in a Food Desert

October 24, 2013

Since opening last month, America’s first nonprofit grocery store is bringing fresh and affordable fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy to Chester, Pa., a community that has struggled to find healthy food options since the city’s last supermarket closed in 2001.

Chester, home to 35,000 people, has been designated a food desert, a low-income area lacking easy access to healthy food, by the US government. For the residents of Chester the Fare & Square grocery store — seven years in the making — is a welcome relief: “It’s a beautiful supermarket,” said employee Geraldine Carter.

The store is the brainchild of Bill Clark, the executive director of Philabundance, a nonprofit hunger relief organization. Chester has a 36 percent poverty rate and unemployment is 13 percent. Clark said at one time Chester had five grocery stores, but they all closed when the city fell on hard times after manufacturing virtually disappeared.

About half of the city’s residents don’t own a car making it difficult and costly to travel to a supermarket. As Clark put it: “To bring a gallon of milk is a hardship if you have to use two buses to get home.”

So far 60 percent of Chester’s families have signed up for free membership to the Fare & Square, which allows shoppers with annual incomes equal to or less than twice the federal poverty level to receive a seven percent store credit every time they shop. About 60 percent of shoppers are using benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to pay for their food.

The 16,000-square-foot store receives funding from the government, foundations and corporations, as well as individuals. The goal is to one day be financially self-sustaining, but it’s still early days, so a time frame has yet to be set.

Now the question is: Can the Fare & Square be a model for other food deserts in America, home to 13.5 million Americans looking for fresh food?

In this report, producer Karla Murthy visits the Fare & Square to find out what the community thinks of their new, unconventional supermarket.

Producer and Editor Karla Murthy
Camera/Associate Producer Alexandra Nikolchev

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  • BHilt

    I love this. It’s an important issue that needs more awareness and solutions. In the Pacific Northwest, a similar thing is happening with, a for-profit business serving food deserts with nutritious food.

  • DavidW

    The work of non-profits can continue as long as the contributions continue. If this project does not reach economic sustainability and the donations stop or slow, then the work of this non-profit can be jeopardized. I see this as ripe for a corporate takeover when that point is reached.

    Long-term economic stability will depend upon the people of Chester who would be wise to keep corporate interests out, permanently. But they’ll need to be educated on the why that’s so important.

    What I don’t want to see is a large company come in to take over the operation as a means to squeeze out wealth from that town. I would like to see Bill Clark study up on the Cooperative Enterprise model and figure out a way to turn over ownership and control to the people of Chester and to prepare them to own and govern this grocery for the benefit of the people of Chester.

    There will be a day when the operating costs may catch up to them when the elites decide that they are tired of this social project and re-direct their giving elsewhere. Eventually the prices will no longer be subsidized and it will have to compete with other operators and if the population don’t have a stake in its existence, it could stop becoming a going concern.

    In the meantime, I cheer this model and hope it works for Chester.

  • Anonymous

    Have faith the religious right will shut this down as it interferes with their favorite charity “themselves”

  • melissa thompson

    This is amazing!!! and I hope other “food deserts” pick it up. I was just talking with someone about how obesity is now a tell tale sign of poverty. They argued, “go to McDonalds and what do you see fat people filling their kids full of junk.” I said in those same communities what don’t you see? Grocery stores, and when healthy food is sometimes two to three times more expensive and you’re on a fixed budget what do you think that mom or dad is going to buy? What if they don’t drive and rely on public transit? How much could you carry? What if you and a couple little hands to hold too? Most corner markets only stock stuff that lasts for years…hardly healthy, but hearty. As someone who was once a single mom, living in the inner city of Minneapolis, and who didn’t drive I can really appreciate this. I’m so glad I read this today.

  • Kira B. Hamilton

    It’s complicated! Some food pantries can accept home-grown donated food. I volunteer for one that does (along with excess food from area restaurants that would otherwise be thrown away). But as you might imagine, it’s more complicated to safely collect and store fresh, perishable foods than shelf-stable canned goods. There are also legal issues governing the storage and distribution of food, which vary widely by region.

  • Brenda Duffey

    One of these is in its early stages in Florence, Oregon. This is where feeding the hungry begins – not Washington D.C.

  • Anonymous

    Great idea – they should have thought of it sooner and should have more of these in every poor area!! I’m sure some will call it socialism…who cares…

  • Anonymous

    Some people share the extra food they grow with their neighbors and friends or form a co-op, or sell it at local roadside stands or farmer’s markets.

  • Margaret Bues

    Hoping they continue to grow and reach other communities in need.

  • Loren Ekroth

    Kudos to Fair and Square! (Now open in Harlem as well.

  • Anonymous

    What a terrific idea! I salute anyone who tries to make a difference in today’s dog-eat-every-other-dog world! I would like more photos, and more information on the actual operation and set-up, in hopes MORE of these kinds of stores would appear.

  • Terence Francis

    What’s the name of the long-standing, nationwide, non-profit grocery chain in the country of Switzerland?

  • Terence Francis

    Aaaah! The godless socialists are at the gates!

  • Jim Ru

    As long as people promise to get a vasectomy or a tubiligation then great. And not just the people in the store, but also the people running it and funding it. And everyone else for that matter. You can not sustain three additional people per second being born on a finite planet.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks. Good to know for our area.

  • Ohenewaa Ra

    Another reason teaching folk to grow food is an important agenda item in the hunger and poverty dialogue. #sustainablefoodsources

  • stu elman

    Show some respect.

  • Theresa Riley

    Loren, There is no store in Harlem. Not sure where you got that idea? – Theresa @ Moyers

  • Jim Ru

    The population of the planet increases at three additional people per second. good luck with the free food idea.

  • Linda Noble

    This is such a good thing!

  • Anonymous

    Oh, yes, their charities, where they can make the poor ‘beg’ for food and debase themselves to show how undeserving they are.

  • Debbie

    Food pantries may not be able to take fresh produce, but “soup kitchens” can and will take fresh produce and use it. So will churches, they will make sure it gets used or donated to shut ins and such. There are also other social programs like Meals on Wheels and Senior Centers who will use donated fresh produce. If you contact some of the local charities, they can help you find programs that will benefit from donated produce.

  • Anonymous

    I’d love to see periodic progress reports. I sure hope for the sake of the community and the working poor everywhere , that the model works ! Go Chester !

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Ru, read the article ! It is NOT “free food” ! You should say it is “profit-free food” ! And it is a fantastic idea for “food desert” communities !

  • Anonymous

    I hope that is tongue in cheek ! Terence, for your sake !

  • Anonymous

    I’m with you Ruth !

  • Anonymous

    Another suggestion might be when we who are able, shop at the local Costco superstore because of their business model of paying decent wages and treating their employees well, we shouldn’t hesitate to purchase the large quantity packages of produce and fresh foods, and share the excess with someone in our community who can use the extra help…it feels good too…just saying… think about it !

  • Anonymous

    Another suggestion might be when we who are able, shop at the local Costco superstore because of their business model of paying decent wages and treating their employees well, we shouldn’t hesitate to purchase the large quantity packages of produce and fresh foods, and share the excess with someone in our community who can use the extra help…it feels good too…just saying… think about it !

  • Anonymous

    “debase themselves to show how undeserving they are” explain this comment

  • mamacita

    This is great! They are collecting longitudinal data. This is going to improve public health, hopefully, in the long run!

  • DavidW

    Who are these, “they” you reference? Shouldn’t we rather be thinking, “we.”

  • Suzanne Lanoue

    Not me, I’m too busy with my own career…

  • DavidW

    Busy people are busy for a reason, they get things done.

  • Suzanne Lanoue

    True but these things are usually started by people who are professional fund raisers and who have experience in that sort of thing. But anyway, I can’t do it. But if anyone starts one here where I live, I’ll be sure to donate to it.

  • DavidW

    There is another way; Cooperative Enterprise. There are about 300+ grocery storefronts throughout the US that are owned by the people who shop in them. Maybe half a dozen are owned by the workers.

    Demand in neighborhoods along with training, education and creative ways to finance can lead to more of this kind of development. Want to learn more? Look up Food Coop Initiative or the National Cooperative Grocer Association online.

    When the charity donations stop, the charitable works stop. When the rich stop giving, this Chester Supermarket will not be able to pay its bills. If it were owned by the people in the town, there wouldn’t be as much profit pressure when compared to a corporate store.

    Of course the prices wouldn’t be subsidized by tax-exempt contributions but the money made in a locally owned store won’t get diverted to some corporate HQ, it stays in town.

  • Anonymous

    I hope Fare and Square also sponsors food planning and preparation education programs.

    Success depends not only on the existence of supplies, but the empowerment that comes from understanding effective ways to use those supplies — and this is a result of education; and access to meaningful information and experiences.

  • Ruth Dilger Williams

    There may be an option for groceries called Wholeshare – google it. It’s a food buying club. I’ve been a coordinator for 2 years and love it. If you start a group in the city mention my name and I’ll get a credit for shopping – much like you would if someone gave your name.

  • Ruth Dilger Williams

    Start a home food buying club called Wholeshare. Google it. PM me through facebook if you have questions.

  • DavidW

    But who owns Wholeshare? They are just another middleman with much less overhead. Ownership is power in this world and Food Co-ops are owned by neighbors and not distant shareholders. The more wealth or money we give up in someone else’s profit line, the more political power we give up with that wealth.

  • DavidW

    But who owns Wholeshare? The Farmers? The Shoppers? A private concern? Is it a private non-profit charity? Of the total purchase price of an item, how much goes to Wholeshare? Are they a new middleman? Are they a business capitalizing on on the local food trend? Are they tromping out into the market on the reputation of Food Co-op goodwill? Who really knows…

  • Ruth Dilger Williams

    Good questions.
    Who are they? They are part of the solution. A piece to the puzzle in a complex system.

    They are down to earth people who care deeply about the food systems and what is broken about it.

    As a volunteer coordinator I receive a tiny percentage in credit to order back into the system. I barter a very small percentage of credit for supplies to operate my group (a box of bags, buckets, etc.) However I actually donate most of the credit back by offering these foods to a Healthy Tuesday project at my local public library. People can stop by get a book, movie, and talk about food and recipes – targeted at households with low-income.

    I am sure there is cost for upkeep and for marketing as with any business. The wholesale price list between the food hub and my group is pennies to the dollar. And, to have it delivered to your neighborhood – rural or urban – is at a huge benefit to the consumer to have that access to fresh organic foods.

  • DavidW

    If you receive a small credit and you are essentially volunteering, are you donating your time to your neighbors or are you subsidizing wholeshare owners? In a Food Co-op, the work is paid reasonably fairly and communities have created decent jobs for their neighbors at the Co-ops. Could Wholeshare be taking profits out of your community when they take their cut of the revenue? Relying on volunteer labor, so that the owner’s share is larger since they don’t have to pay anyone…

  • Jane Kraemer

    Funny. I was actually looking for serious comments along those lines. Unfortunately, THOSE people don’t read Bill Moyers for the most part- except for Mr. Ru (above) who got it wrong. I was in the Atlanta Airport a few years ago where I met a woman from New Orleans. She told me that it was a good thing that the Ninth Ward was destroyed, because it was filled with evil, godless people. She back-pedaled in response to the look of horror on my face. You joke, but there are many Americans who would prefer that these areas remain food deserts.

  • Daisy Call

    I agree. I don’t know about the rest of the country, but in New York
    State, people can use SNAP benefits to buy plants that produce fruits
    and vegetables…a great way to stretch out food dollars and increase
    the nutritional value of food. I would love to see, or be a part of
    community initiatives to help teach easy container gardening techniques, great for city and apartment dwellers.

  • Anonymous

    Which corporate HQ are you referring to – the non profit that helped set it up & get funding to start or the local store mgt?

  • Anonymous

    The research has shown that greater wealth and education, along with access to affordable contraception, lowers fertility rate. Which is, to say the obvious, is probably a bit more humane than letting people starve to death.

  • DavidW

    I’m asking the question, who owns and controls Wholeshare? I wasn’t asking who they were. Are they a 501(c)3 non-profit charity? Or are they a for-profit corporate HQ? Different issue regarding the above comments from Ruth Dilger in regard to Wholeshare that is a different entity than what this piece is about.

    They could have been set up by a “parent” non-profit to run as a stand-alone for-profit. The people who control it reaps any profit made. I was looking to clarify what happens to any profits Wholeshare makes. Does it go to a few people who run it, does it go to people who invested in the company? Does it get shared with the shoppers?

    As for the Chester Fare and Square, Philabundance probably is not making a profit and any profit made will probably be plowed back into operations and that is when or if profits are made. If the prices are being subsidized by donations, when those donations and contributions stop, this operation in Chester is no longer financially sustainable and could go out of business.

  • Daniel Embody

    What next? Government run McDonalds franchise?