“Look, if you’re poor, we’ll give you food stamps. But if you don’t have a place to spend them, then what’s the point?”
It’s a rainy Tuesday afternoon, and Jeff Brown is on a train to Washington, D.C. In just a few short hours, he’ll speak to officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture about his efforts to bring fresh, affordable food to Philadelphia’s low-income neighborhoods. But for now, he’s speaking to me – just another citizen of the city he’s tried so desperately to serve over the past 21 years.
Brown, 46, is a fourth-generation grocer. He is the founder, CEO and president of Brown’s Super Stores, Inc., a 10-store chain of supermarkets based in Bellmawr, N.J. Brown’s also one of the brains behind an innovative program called the Fresh Foods Financing Initiative (FFFI), which is quickly changing the way inner-city neighborhoods eat by supporting the opening of supermarkets in fresh food deprived areas.
Recently, the program gained national attention. When First Lady Michelle Obama launched her anti-childhood-obesity campaign, Let’s Move, she cited FFFI as a model for the way she hopes to make healthy food more accessible around the country. Soon after, President Obama requested $400 million in his 2011 budget proposal to create a national program.
On Jan. 27, Brown was invited to the White House and attended the president’s State of the Union address as a guest of Michelle Obama.
“It was surreal and amazing,” Brown says about going to the White House. “They’re both so nice and human – real people – and very passionate about fixing this problem.”
Currently, more than 23-million Americans live in low-income areas that are more than a mile from a supermarket. In Philadelphia, this is a particularly large problem. Philadelphia has the second-lowest number of supermarkets per capita of any major city in the country. According to a survey conducted in 2004 by the Philadelphia Health Management Corporation, 32 percent of residents have to travel outside of their neighborhoods to get groceries and eight of 10 adults don’t get the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
In 2003, during a meeting set up by Philadelphia’s Food Trust organization to discuss the dearth of supermarkets in too many Philadelphia communities, Brown was hit with a realization: Something needs to change. He teamed up with State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) and Robert Nowak of the Reinvestment Fund and together they devised a plan to use state and private funds to finance affordable, accessible supermarkets in neighborhoods where fresh food is scarce. The first FFFI-run supermarket opened in Southwest Philly later that year and – to the surprise of many – was a huge success.
Now, there are more than 81 FFFI-assisted supermarkets in Pennsylvania, including the sprawling ShopRite at the Park West Town Center at 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue. The Park West shopping center, which was built over a demolished rail yard in 2007, is 340,000 feet of pure progress for the area. In addition to the city’s largest ShopRite, the center also features the first Lowe’s Home Improvement Store built in a predominantly African-American community and several other businesses – including Planet Fitness and Monster Pets – that brought a total of 640 jobs to the area and completely revived the local economy.
For Brown, opening a ShopRite at the center was a no-brainer.
His father owned a small grocery store at 40th Street and Girard Avenue, and when Brown was younger, he used to help him out at the store after school. That early exposure to the diverse needs of the Parkside neighborhood stuck with him, he said.
When he saw the neighborhood’s statistics, he knew he had to be a part of the planning at the Park West Town Center.
“I can only do so much, so I try to pick places where I know I can make a big impact,” he says. “Putting a ShopRite at 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue was a huge priority for us, because before it opened, there were something like 100,000 people in the area and zero supermarkets.”
Those 100,000 people were turning to quick meals from corner stores, fast food and take-out restaurants – which just isn’t healthy, dietician Judy Ensslin says.
Ensslin is the program manager for the School District of Philadelphia’s Eat Right Now campaign. This initiative aims to educate kids about healthy eating and exercise and prevent childhood obesity. Ensslin’s seen firsthand the types of eating behaviors that develop in neighborhoods without supermarkets.
“At corner stores, there’s a very limited variety of food and things tend to be priced a little bit higher than they would be at supermarkets,” Ensslin says. “People end up buying high-fat, high-sugar, high-sodium foods just because they’re cheaper – kids especially. Unfortunately, that kind of a diet can lead to obesity – which, as we all know, comes with a whole host of other health problems.”
Grocer Brown feels that these health problems are crippling the nation’s health care system.
“Our country is getting sicker and sicker every year,” Brown says. “And a lot of it has to do with the growing problem of obesity. The biggest reason why people have a hard time accessing health care is because it’s too expensive – but it’s not too expensive because any one person is profiting from it, it’s too expensive because we have so many people dealing with major illnesses.”
As Brown sees it, why not fix that problem from the bottom up? The ShopRite at the Park West Town Center offers a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables and healthy meal options, as well as a competitively priced pharmacy. Ninety-day prescriptions for generic medications can be purchased for only $10 – and generic antibiotics are offered for free. Brown hopes to eventually add a health clinic and counseling center to the store as well.
Of course, there are other problems to tackle, too. Though Parkside may be in the middle of a food revolution, neighboring Mantua is still having problems accessing nutritious food.
Dave Purdie, 60, a longtime Mantua resident who recently moved out of the neighborhood but remains an active member of the community, says that getting over to the ShopRite at 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue is sometimes difficult for Mantua residents, especially those without cars. As he sees it, people in the neighborhood want to eat healthier – they just don’t have the resources to do so.
“If there were places in the neighborhood to buy healthier food, people would definitely buy it,” he says. “The corner stores sell what people want, not what they need – and they know that.”
Brown thinks that the problem of food access will be fixed across the country within the next seven or so years.
“Prior to doing this, people thought that the problem was unfixable,” he says. “They said nothing could be done to change things. We were up against some pretty big odds.” He adds with pride, “Look at where we are now.”