Monday, January 23, 2012

Innovative Strategy to Reduce Hunger- Spotlight on the First Nonprofit Grocery Store

As part of the Spotlight on Community Change series, we highlight an innovative anti-hunger and community development strategy: Chester Community Food Center.

Chester, Pennsylvania is one of the hungriest communities in the United States. According to a report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), 31% of Pennsylvania’s first congressional district, of which Chester is a part, cannot access and/or afford sufficient food. There has not been a grocery store within city limits for the past 10 years and at least 30% of the population is too poor to own a car, making it incredibly difficult for residents to access healthy food. Chester’s roughly 34,000 residents also endure the negative effects of concentrated poverty: over 50% live below 200% of the Federal Line and 15% are unemployed. Not surprisingly, the overweight/ obesity rate for Chester’s children is twice that of those living in the rest of Delaware County, where poverty is less common and grocery stores are more plentiful.

In an effort to address Chester’s destitution, Philabundance, a hunger relief agency in Delaware Valley, is spearheading a project to create Chester Community Food Center, the first nonprofit grocery store in the United States. This project could not come at a more urgent time. The recent national economic crisis has resulted in increased hunger and decreased donations to community organizations that serve the neediest individuals, making development of a more financially sustainable model of emergency food delivery vital.

The Chester Community Food Center will combat hunger and high unemployment without putting further strain on the already strapped emergency food system. The center’s primary roles include:
1. Grocery store: Fresh fruits and vegetables, among other goods, will be sold at the lowest possible price. In contrast, traditional groceries set prices with the goal of making a high profit.
2. Sustainable food pantry: some items will be available free of charge
3. Convenient venue for SNAP outreach: SNAP, also known as Food Stamps, is an underutilized federal benefit. Those who qualify and enroll will be able to use their SNAP benefits at the food center.
4. Valuable asset to Chester’s local economy: The store is anticipated to create 20-25 new jobs

The food center, which is still in early planning stages, received a major boost recently from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funds activities and research dedicated to improving public health. United States Congressman Bob Brady, who represents Chester and parts of Philadelphia, has also helped raise start-up funds. Since food will be priced to cover costs, Philabundance hopes the center will eventually be self-sustaining. 

By providing healthy food at a low cost in a community currently lacking nutritious food options, Chester’s proposed food center will address both affordability and access. Philabundance describes their initiative as “a new kind of solution that addresses food insecurity and food access inequality while providing choice, dignity and respect,” central tenants of CSSP’s Constituents Co-Invested in Change work.

Hunger is a national issue. As recent reports by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA; Household Food Security in the United States in 2010) and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC; two reports: Food Hardship in America- 2010 and A Half Empty Plate) prove, domestic hunger is not limited to Chester. Hunger resulting from an inability to access and afford sufficient food for one’s family, officially termed food hardship by FRAC and food insecurity or very low food security by the USDA, is a problem throughout the United States. FRAC’s national data show that 18% of Americans experienced food hardship in 2010. The USDA’s extremely conservative methodology (homeless individuals, for example, are not included in their sample) characterizes 14.5% of Americans as food insecure. 

Hunger is both more common and more problematic in households with children. The USDA reports that 20.2% of households with children are food insecure, as compared to 11.7% of households without children. Similarly, FRAC has shown that households with children were more likely to report an inability to access affordable fresh fruits and vegetables, a circumstance correlated with poor health, high stress, obesity, food hardship and poverty. Lifelong negative effects of childhood hunger include developmental delays, stunted physical growth, decreased academic performance and educational attainment and harmful behavioral, social and mental health consequences. 

In response, President Obama and his administration have pledged to end childhood hunger by 2015. As part of the First Lady’s Let’s Move Campaign, the Departments of Treasury, Health and Human Services and Agriculture have jointly committed to promoting increased access to nutritious food, especially in food deserts. The three Departments have created 19 grant opportunities for local community partnerships addressing food access problems.

In addition to Philabundance’s Chester Community Food Center, local anti-hunger organizations might consider these innovative strategies to promote access to nutritious, affordable food:
  • Mobile food carts that sell fresh fruits and vegetables in urban and rural food deserts: New York City

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