September 27, 2013; Philadelphia Inquirer


Until last weekend, it had been 12 years since residents in the City of Chester had a supermarket to call their own. Chester, once a shipbuilding and manufacturing hub on the Delaware River between Philadelphia, Penn., and Wilmington, Del., had long since fallen on hard times and had been designated by the federal government as a “food desert”—a low-income area lacking ready access to healthy food. People had to settle for what they could find in corner stores—which rarely offer much in the way of fresh foods—or travel, often by public transportation, to purchase a head of lettuce or fresh meat and seafood. Now, thanks to a seven-year campaign led by the nonprofit hunger-relief agency Philabundance, Chester’s 33,000 residents have their own 16,000-square-foot, $7-million supermarket, Fare & Square. Numerous foundation, corporate, government, and individual donors made it possible for this “oasis” to appear in the desert.

The store is a new kind of venture for Philabundance, which was established in 1984 and merged with the Philadelphia Food Bank in 2004. And it’s a relatively new kind of venture in the supermarket business: a full-service, nonprofit operation with prices 8–10 percent lower than small urban grocers, free membership for anyone who wants to shop there, and extra benefits for low-income customers, who can accrue 7 percent store credit toward future purchases each time they shop.

It’s worth noting that while much of the media coverage of Fare & Square’s opening identified the store as “the nation’s first nonprofit supermarket,” the Philabundance news release called it “the first nonprofit grocery store of its kind,” apparently in reference to the scale of its operation and the free-membership model that’s open to the public.

Nonprofit food co-ops have been around for many years, of course, but typically involve a membership fee. Other nonprofits around the country provide access to healthy foods through a number of delivery models, often with membership fees and/or financial-need restrictions: a combination of donated and retail products, online shopping without a brick-and-mortar store, or a limited range of available products.

One grocery store with a model that looks to be somewhat similar to Fare & Square is Fresh Start in St. Joseph’s, MO, operated by the Second Harvest Community Food Bank. Fresh Start opened in January 2013 as a “nonprofit grocery store and food pantry,” but does have membership restrictions based on financial need. And the nonprofit Louis’ Groceries in Chicago opened in August 2011 and describes itself as a “small grocery store,” and offers a range of fresh foods as well as educational programs about healthy eating.

So while the headlines about “first in the nation” may not be entirely accurate, there’s no question that Fare & Square represents a major step forward for the people of Chester and yet another model for nonprofits committed to solving the food desert problem to consider. And since Chester is only one of 35 food deserts just in the nine-county Delaware Valley region served by Philabundance, there’s plenty of room for the nonprofit sector to experiment with new models and learn from those already in the field.

In addition to access to healthy foods, the investment in Chester by Philabundance and its partners means a great deal to a city with a poverty rate of 36.9 percent and unemployment hovering around 13 percent. Of the 69 jobs created by the store, around 80 percent are held by Chester residents.

On opening day, September 28, all the shopping carts were claimed within the first few minutes. At about 5 p.m., Fare & Square welcomed its 5,000th customer.—Eileen Cunniffe