Guest Column: Chester needs new food center
By Bill Clark
DELCO Daily Times
Many of your readers are likely aware of the absence of an adequate supermarket within the city of Chester. Many of them find it challenging to get quality food within the city limits due to the lack of access to a food store. It is this shortage that inspired us at Philabundance to bring a food center to the residents of Chester. I would like to take this opportunity to share our plan and explain why it is important and how it will benefit our community.
Let me start with a little background. When food banks were established 30 years ago, one of the assumptions was that surplus food would always be available for distribution to those who need it most. Now in 2011, that assumption is no longer a reality.
In these challenging economic times, the amount of traditional food donated to Philabundance is decreasing as the urgent need for food assistance grows. This is a trend food banks across the country are facing. This increasing need is compelling food banks to find new models of food distribution that address our current issues and may also be sustainable down the road.
It is in this spirit that Philabundance is creating an innovative and systemic approach to combat hunger and improve food access to households here in the Delaware Valley. Our plan is to foster food equality by creating a hybrid of a choice food pantry and a for-purchase market, enabling us to provide access to a full range of food at a low to no cost. This model promotes self-sufficiency through choice and maximizes food assistance benefits. Chester will be the first community to benefit from the food center. We hope to expand this model throughout the area we serve.
Our research has shown that Chester has great need for a food center of this kind. Chester is in the 1st Congressional District, which according to the Food Research and Action Center is the 4th hungriest district in the nation. Last summer, Philabundance surveyed 400 registered voters in the city and found that nearly 54 percent of residents said they live too far from a grocery store that provides healthy foods.
It is clear to us that the people of Chester need access to an affordable market able to serve their nutritional needs.
Philabundance has been distributing food to Chester for more than 20 years. We currently provide food to 17 agencies there including 11 food pantries and expect that our distribution will grow by millions of pounds in the next five years with increased agency refrigeration.
We fully recognize that if it weren’t for these pantries in Chester, the need would be far worse. But we don’t feel pantries can ever substitute for a market; nor will the important role of pantries disappear when markets arrive. Simply, we need both. Our new concept tries to open a middle ground.
Our food center will promote food access and equality by offering a full range of food staples, including produce, at one convenient location. We will accept SNAP benefits and 20 percent of the food will be given at no cost. Nearly all the free food will be frozen and refrigerated, like dairy items, which are in high demand in the community but are often prohibitively expensive.
This project will include renovating a vacant building and will create about 25 jobs for Chester residents. We know that as a community, we all strive to ensure that each and every man, woman, and child has access to the healthy and nutritious foods they need. Through direct distribution sites, like the new facility in Chester, all of us together could potentially wipe out chronic food insecurity in the Delaware Valley.
I sincerely hope I have addressed some of the questions your readers have, and I hope to see you all at the opening of our Chester food center.
Bill Clark is president and executive director of Philabundance.