Johnson Foundation Gives $800,000 to Philabundance for Nonprofit Market in Chester

By Alfred Lubrano
Inquirer Staff Writer

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has donated $800,000 to Philabundance, the area’s largest hunger-relief organization, to help create the country’s first nonprofit supermarket, scheduled to be built in Chester.

The money, part of an overall $1 million gift from the foundation, gives Philabundance $2.5 million of the estimated $4.5 million needed to complete the project, according to Bill Clark, the agency’s executive director.

The market will be a hybrid food pantry/supermarket, in which low-income residents in the economically challenged city of 34,000 people can both receive free food and pay for other food items and nonfood products at low prices. No other such facility exists in the United States, Clark said.

“This donation is a real endorsement of our project,” Clark said. “We’re hoping that the foundation’s announcement will be the flare that gets the attention of the broader community to help us close that last funding gap. We really need support from corporations, individuals, and foundations.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation identifies itself as the largest philanthropy devoted entirely to public health in the United States. Its namesake and founder ran his family’s business, Johnson & Johnson, the worldwide maker of health products.

“The foundation is very interested in supporting innovative models that speak to food inequality,” said Susan Mende, senior program officer at the Princeton-based foundation.

“Philabundance has a strong track record and came up with a very good model for a nonprofit retail food center.”

Chester is a “bottomless hole of need,” according to Clark.

The city is in the fourth-hungriest congressional district in America, according to survey information this year from the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington nonprofit. There hasn’t been a grocery store within city limits for more than 10 years, Clark said.

More than half the residents there earn less than 200 percent of the poverty level ($22,350 for a family of four), census figures show.

It suffers from 15 percent unemployment, and 50 percent of the residents are food insecure, meaning they lack money to buy enough food to sustain healthy lives, Clark said.

He added that existing food cupboards in Chester carry an inordinate amount of the load to feed families.

But, he said, cupboards are stopgaps and were never meant to deal with long-term need.

“In no way can these cupboards continue to handle the demand in Chester,” Clark said.

He added that the project has gotten support from State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the Democrat representing the First Congressional District.

Philabundance is under contract to take over a building on the western edge of Chester, officials said.

The agency plans to renovate the property and install a 13,000-foot food center. Because funding is incomplete, no one can say when that will be.

What is certain, Clark added, is that it’s desperately needed.

“We have to do this,” he said. “There’s no greater food-access inequality than in Chester.”

To learn more about food access in Chester, click here.

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Learn about Philabundance’s new non-profit model food center, Fare & Square

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