February 24, 2012; Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

The concept of “food deserts”—those communities that lack decent supermarkets with a range of quality foods and fresh produce—should be well known to nonprofits around the nation. Chester, Penn. is such a community. It hasn’t had a supermarket for over a decade, leading to its designation as a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In fact, the USDA has a food desert locator on its website identifying places of high population concentrations far from grocery stores. The USDA defines food deserts as urban areas more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store and rural areas more than ten miles away. The results of this definition are 6,529 food-desert census tracts in the U.S. (not including Alaska and Hawaii), 75 percent of which are in urban areas much like Chester. 

Some nonprofits have partnered with for-profit supermarket chains to bring groceries into urban food deserts. The Abyssinian Baptist Development Corporation brought a Pathmark grocery store to Harlem and New Community Corporation brought one to Newark, N.J.

In Chester, the plan to establish a new grocery is nonprofit from start to finish. The nonprofit emergency food aid group Philabundance has purchased a vacant building that hosted the last supermarket in the city before it closed in 2001. Philabundance plans to open a 13,000 square foot “Fare and Square” grocery there in about a year’s time.

The president of Philabundance, Bill Clark, believes it will be the first nonprofit supermarket developed and operated by a food aid group. The project is anticipated to cost about $4.5 million, toward which the nonprofit has raised $2.2 million in government and private revenues. The biggest of the contributions was a $1 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

This is a project worth watching as a potential model not just for addressing food deserts, but for moving nonprofit emergency food programs into serving entire communities.—Rick Cohen