Undersecretary of Agriculture visits Fare and Square in Chester
CHESTER — A federal official toured the nation’s only non-profit grocery store Friday morning, calling it a successful example of improving food access to low-income communities.
Fare and Square is a 16,000 square foot non-profit grocery store owned and operated by Philabundance. Constructed in a vacant store at 9th and Trainer streets in Chester, the store has been in operation for about four months with 69 employees, 82 percent of which are Chester residents. Undersecretary of Agriculture Kevin Concannon toured the facility Friday, eager to learn about the store’s operations.
“It’s important (to see it in person) because we can become insulated down in Washington, D.C.,” Concannon said. He was impressed by the wide selection of fresh produce and meats available to shoppers.
“That’s something you don’t see in a lot of low-income communities,” he said.
Chester hadn’t had a grocery store in more than 10 years and the west end was labelled a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Philabundance has been providing food to 10 food pantries in the city, so the need for an affordable outlet for nutritious foods was evident.
“In the life of a store, this is still infancy,” Philabundance President and Executive Director Bill Clark said of Fare and Square. While the operation has been successful so far, Clark is wary about releasing too many specifics about it’s financial performance. He believes the undersecretary’s visit will help to publicize the gains being made in the region.
“We’re hoping to spread all the information we can,” Clark said. “The Philadelphia region is getting a reputation as a center for innovation.”
Concannon agreed, and said that a recent trip to Iowa illuminated problems with alleviating food deserts in areas less densely populated than Chester.
“There is a lot of innovation going on,” he said. “We’re stumped about what to do about the more rural areas that will not support a supermarket. We can’t just hope and pray that somehow a supermarket will appear in these communities.”
Fare and Square will serve as a test case for a new approach to improving food access.
“This experience will enable this area to show what worked and what didn’t work,” Concannon said.
Chester Mayor John Linder said that the store is a key part of the city’s future.
“It’s a sign of our economic development in the city,” Linder said. “We’re all very excited about it.”
The store also provides an invaluable source of nutritious food for many city families, especially those on the west end of Chester, he said.
“The downtown area is on the other side of town, so it’s great for the people here on the west end of the city,” Linder said.
It’s been an economic driver because it has created 69 new jobs, with more than 80 percent of those new employees coming from Chester.
“This is very important because not only is a it a supermarket, but approximately 80 percent of the jobs created went to Chester residents,” Linder said.
Concannon said that the job creation aspect is one of the bonuses of such a unique project.
“It isn’t just about improving access to food, it’s also bringing jobs to the community,” Concannon said.
Clark said that Philabundance hosted a five-week job training program for city residents before they even started hiring. Once a workforce was hired, Clark said that employees are trained in many different areas of the store’s operation.
“We cross train them in a lot of areas. That increases their ability to be employed in other areas,” Clark said. “If we have a high turnover of employees, we believe that’s a good thing because we’re making these people more employable elsewhere.”
The store is open to all shoppers, but a special Carrot Club provides shoppers who meet income requirements with rewards that can be redeemed in store. The free membership is available to shoppers who earn 200 percent of the poverty line or less, and they can receive a 7 percent credit toward future purchases at the store. SNAP benefits are also accepted.
Fare and Square is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.