Back to the desert? Closing Bottom Dollar makes it harder for poor to eat well

News Source: Philadelphia Daily News

BY JASON NARK, Daily News Staff Writer

LIFE ON the poverty line can mean getting some cupcakes in your stomach, even if you’re dreaming of an avocado.

Fresh fruit and vegetables might require a bus trip out of town or waiting until a check clears. Hitting up the corner store instead often means eating junk food.

But news that Chester’s brand-new supermarket, the Bottom Dollar on Edgmont Avenue near 15th Street, is closing seven months after it opened wasn’t greeted with great shock by the people standing in the snow flurries with their bags Tuesday afternoon.

They hadn’t had enough time to get used to a local supermarket with fresh food.

“It was convenient. Oh, well. I guess we’ll take the bus now,” said Burgunde Alston, 21, of Chester.

Back in June, the Chester Bottom Dollar opened in a brand-new building to long lines as the city’s first for-profit supermarket in a decade.

Chester’s other supermarket, Fare & Square, is operated by the nonprofit Philabundance about 3 miles away on the city’s west end, the first of its kind in the country.

In November, Bottom Dollar announced that it was selling all of its 66 stores to fellow discount grocery chain Aldi. All the stores, including Philadelphia’s nine locations, are expected to close next Thursday.

Aldi hasn’t decided which, if any, of the Bottom Dollars they’ll rebrand and keep operating and which they’ll just turn off the lights and sell the buildings. A spokeswoman for Aldi said it would be premature to speculate on the future of the Bottom Dollar stores.

Chester Mayor John Linder said his goal is to have the building occupied, ideally with Aldi, but he would accept another tenant, too.

“This is a corporate decision. It had nothing to do with the city itself,” Linder said. “The site itself is marketable. It’s a highly trafficked area. That’s the most frustrating part of it right now, to wait on what Aldi is doing.”

Meanwhile, across town at Chester’s only other supermarket, customers and Fare & Square employees were greeting one another by their first names. “This is Chester” is painted across the store with symbols connected to the city, like its annual Mother’s Day Parade.

The 16,000-square-foot store opened in 2013 and offers a 7 percent discount for people who earn 200 percent of the federal poverty line or less. Today, Fare & Square has 11,000 members in its Carrot Club, and perhaps more importantly, it’s becoming a place where people run into each other and say hello while squeezing cantaloupes or eyeing a ham.

“That’s the goal. That’s what supermarkets should be: community hubs,” Mike Basher, Fare & Square’s vice president of retail operations, said of the store’s atmosphere.

Prior to the opening of Fare & Square, the west end of Chester had been dubbed a “food desert” by the United States Department of Agriculture, one of 35 in the Philadelphia area.

“Out of Chester’s total population, just under 34,000, approximately 30,000 were not within reasonable travel distance to fresh food,” said Patricia Smith, a senior policy adviser with the Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit that works with distressed communities.

Camden, also dubbed a food desert, saw a PriceRite open last year in the location of the city’s last supermarket. A ShopRite is scheduled to open in the city next year.

Amy Hillier, an associate professor of city and regional planning at Penn Design, said the Fare & Square in Chester will help lessen the blow of Bottom Dollar’s closure for some.

“I don’t expect the closing of Bottom Dollar to be absolutely devastating,” Hillier said.

Outside the Bottom Dollar, customer Antoinette Womack agreed. It wouldn’t be devastating, she said, but just another inconvenience.

“It was something the city needed,” Womack, 55, said as she loaded jugs of water into her car. “Luckily, I have a car.”

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