Natural Foods Merchandiser

Q&A with John Weidman

The Food Trust is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit founded in 1992 that combats hunger and poor dietary health in urban areas. One of its primary initiatives is to bring fresh, affordable food to low-income communities where grocery stores are scarce. To date, the $120 million initiative in Pennsylvania has funded 69 projects and The Food Trust is working on similar initiatives in New York, Illinois and Louisiana.

Q: How do you define an "underserved" community?

A: These are low- to moderate-income areas with poor access to grocery stores and fresh produce. When you get into what's "poor access," it really depends. For some communities poor access might mean a 2-mile radius; in other communities it might be a mile. Sometimes there are natural barriers, such as a river or a highway, that make it difficult to get to the store.

In many communities that are underserved by grocery stores, there are lots of convenience stores and fast food outlets selling primarily food that's high in fat, high in salt, high in sugar, not the best for you. What we're trying to do is to replace some of those stores with grocery stores, and our focus is really on fresh fruits and vegetables. That's the main goal. If you can provide many more outlets selling fresh fruits and vegetables, that's going to improve the health of the community.

Q: Why aren't there more grocery stores in low-income, urban areas?

A: It can be more challenging to get start-up capital because sometimes commercial banks see these areas as higher risk. Land is another factor. Getting the amount of space you want is much more challenging than if you went out to the suburbs. In an urban site, you might have to assemble five to six different parcels of land and then go through a lot of red tape. Finally, there is perception. Sure, wealthier, suburban communities buy a lot, but it's come to the point where you might find five supermarkets within a two-minute drive of each other. So, at some point, you're eating each other's profits. In some of these underserved areas, there are lots of people who might not have as much money, but they have lots of buying power. Everybody has to eat. If there are no stores around and you're the only store in town, you have a pretty good chance of being successful. And that's what we've found in Pennsylvania. All the stores we've funded have done extremely well.

Q: How can retailers get involved in their own communities?

A: One way to get educated is to go to a community meeting in a low-income community where you think there might be a lack of access to nutritious food. You'll realize how high on the priority list having a supermarket is when you don't have one. Most of us take for granted that we can find fresh food in fairly close proximity to where we live. For folks who don't have that, it's incredibly stressful and something they really care deeply about.

Q: How do you decide where you're going to do your next project?

A: We do outreach to educate communities and the grocery store industry about available grants and loans for stores willing to locate in one of these underserved areas. Usually it's the grocery store operators who learn about the incentives; then they look at some different sites and submit their application to The Food Trust. We determine eligibility based on whether the site is in a low- to moderate-income census track and whether there are other stores within the trade area of the proposed project. Most of our successful applicants are family-owned supermarket chains of seven to 10 stores.

Q: How are you taking this program to other states?

A: We're trying a similar process to what we've done in Pennsylvania, getting folks together and coming up with strategies for increasing grocery-store development. The state of New York just committed $10 million to a new program called Healthy Food/Healthy Communities. (See "New York Fights Obesity" on page 10.) Louisiana is looking at a statewide program and New Orleans has committed $7 million of disaster funding for a new program called the Fresh Foods Retail Incentives Program that is also based on the Pennsylvania model. Illinois has proposed the Illinois Fresh Food Fund, which still needs to go through the legislature.

Hear more with John Weidman in our podcast: It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a supermarket! How grocery stores can save low-income communities.

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