An Oasis of Groceries
Twelve years ago, residents of this hardscrabble riverfront city watched its last supermarket shut down. As poverty deepened and businesses left, Chester was officially designated one of about 6,500 “food desert tracts” by the United States Department of Agriculture. This means the heavily low-income population of 35,000 lacked easy access to healthy, affordable food and people had to commute to other places to buy groceries. “I had to hire someone to drive me to markets in other towns; that’s the way I shopped,” said Sylvia Powell, a longtime resident.
That changed in late September when a full-fledged supermarket named Fare & Square opened in the very building that had housed the last profit-driven supermarket. Anyone driving down Ninth Street, a grimly tattered boom-to-bust boulevard, suddenly encounters Fare & Square gleaming and bustling like a mirage, like the supermarkets in the middle-class towns flourishing farther off in the Delaware Valley.
It was opened as a creative outpost, a “nonprofit supermarket” conceived by Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, a hunger relief organization well known to the poor and needy on the streets of Philadelphia, 15 miles northeast. Isolated and recession-battered, Chester needed “a real Phoenix story,” Mr. Clark decided — in the form of a market rooted in community pride and healthy, low-priced food.
“This is just wonderful,” Ms. Powell declared, filling her shopping cart from the store’s displays of fresh meat, produce, dairy products, fish and frozen foods. “Everything’s right here,” she said, and “the prices are right.”
Low-income shoppers can sign up for membership in the store’s Carrot Club to get store credit equal to 7 percent of what they spend, to be used for future purchases. Philabundance estimates that more than half of the population of Chester, where unemployment is about 13 percent, has already signed up in this credit system. There is a services counter for customers to learn about their eligibility and apply for federal food assistance and Social Security programs.
It took seven years of innovative labor to get the store from the drawing board to opening day. The supermarket made sure to hire locally to fill a staff of 45 tutored by Paul Messina, the store’s director, who has four decades of experience in profit-making supermarkets. “It’s a mission,” and “I’m blessed to be part of this,” Mr. Messina said, taking care to stock the meat counter with smoked pork neck bones, a favorite in this predominately black community.
It remains to be seen whether the Fare & Square, started with the help of private foundations and corporate donors, can survive as a nonprofit business. Mr. Clark and Mr. Messina are worried about the recent federal food assistance cuts and even greater ones likely to follow, knowing that every cut means skimpier meals for poor families. All the more reason the supermarket is here to stay in Chester, they resolve. This week, they’re offering an enticing deal for Carrot Club members: a free Thanksgiving turkey with a purchase of $50 of groceries, only at Fare & Square.