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    EXCLUSIVE ONLINE ARTICLE: Grocers Water ‘Food Deserts’

    Jeff Brown and the National Grocers Association are spearheading the movement to open stores in underserved areas, which is poised to receive a large push from a proposed infusion of federal funds.

    Fresh from being invited to sit in the audience with First Lady Michelle Obama during last month’s State of the Union Address, ShopRite operator Jeff Brown is pleased about the prospects of more food stores opening in underserved areas. Especially encouraging is the president’s 2011 budget proposal of $400 million in federal aid to further the cause, which Brown refers to as “just a start.”

    For the fourth-generation grocer, however, involvement in the movement goes way back. His third store, which opened 15 years ago — well before the advent of Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a public-private partnership that invests in healthy-food outlets in so-called “food deserts” — was an urban location in just such an area. Six years ago, though, Brown got into urban stores in earnest, opening the first market under the initiative, in an underserved neighborhood in the City of Brotherly Love.

    Although he was initially leery of becoming involved with a governmental program, the initiative’s champion, State Rep. Dwight Evans, was able to persuade Brown that in this case, the government was willing to invest the proper resources to “really get it done.”

    Since that time, Brown, who operates a total of 11 ShopRite locations, has opened four stores under the initiative, all of which he says are performing “really well — comparable to our suburban stores’ performance.” As for how operating in this “unique niche” works, he notes that it comes down to always including the surrounding areas in major decisions affecting the stores, with the payoff being strong shopper loyalty. “They watch after us and stick up for us,” Brown says proudly of the locations’ customers. “The community really appreciates us being there.”

    That said, he describes the process of opening such as store as a “learning curve” dependent on such factors as culture and religion as well as diet. For a grocer to succeed in such a community, he or she must be “open to understand” its unique needs, according to Brown.

    Now, six years down the road, over 70 stores across the state have opened under the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, whose extraordinary success Brown attributes to its flexibility. As an example, he notes that another operator in inner-city Philadelphia has seen success with an entirely different strategy — instead of Brown’s large-format stores, this independent has scored with much smaller units on sites not appropriate for bigger locations. The genius of the program, as Brown explains it, is that it can accommodate anything from “adding a produce case to … a 70,000-square-foot store.”

    Brown’s involvement with the White House began about nine months ago, when he, Evans and program backers The Food Trust and The Reinvestment Fund were invited over to explain the ins and outs of the initiative, with the idea of exploring a possible nationwide expansion. After the connection was forged, White House staffers visited one of Brown’s stores, in west Philadelphia, last summer, and the relationship continues to move ahead.

    Although Brown acknowledges issues on both sides of the fence that keep such programs from getting off the ground — state officials often need to be nudged into action, and grocers fearful of disastrous investments in a narrow-margin business tend to be skeptical and cautious — he feels that the push from the federal government is “gonna wake some people up” that opening stores in food deserts is a viable option.

    Although more will be needed than the president’s proposed $400 million, Brown calls the funding “a good idea for everybody,” as it provides jobs without spending any money, helps farmers move more produce and enables grocers to expand their businesses. Such initiatives also bolster Michelle Obama’s newly launched program to fight childhood obesity, Brown points out, since the condition disproportionately affects lower-income kids who are most likely to live in food deserts, where the inhabitants have long been found to suffer more from diabetes and heart disease.

    The solution to this problem, according to Brown is for each state to develop its own program along the lines of the Pennsylvania initiative. So far, Illinois, New Jersey, Louisiana, Colorado and New York are doing just that, while Brown receives visitors from “almost every state” to check out his stores.

    While the federal program should encourage states to put funds behind more food stores in underserved areas, Brown and his wife, Sandy, are helping to ease the often onerous process of opening such a location, through the nonprofit UpLift Solutions organization, which sends store staffers out to help operators get up and running in food deserts. Additionally, a Web site, www.upliftsolutions.org, will feature helpful content, including contacts and tax credit information. Brown says that the site will be a “central place for everything you need.”

    While opportunities aren’t as abundant in Philadelphia as they once were, Brown notes that there are plenty of areas that could stand to benefit from programs like Pennsylvania’s. The important thing, he advises, is to approach the experience “open-mindedly — be a good listener.”

    Over at the National Grocers Association (NGA), EVP Frank DiPasquale is wholeheartedly behind Brown’s efforts, which parallel those of the trade group. DiPasquale notes that the NGA has been involved in the issue on the national level for 14 years, working with such entities as the Community Development Corp. and USDA in coalitions of like-minded companies and organizations, with the aim of opening stores in underserved rural and urban areas.

    DiPasquale characterized the impetus behind NGA’s involvement as a “moral responsibility” to mitigate the often deadly health consequences of people’s lack of access to fresh, nutritious food.

    As far as Brown’s efforts go, DiPasquale observed that the ShopRite operator “has cracked the code” of running such stores at a profit, resulting in a “wonderful template” that “can show others it’s doable.” What’s more, the publicity attending Brown’s invite from the Obamas — not to mention the Thomas K. Zaucha Entrepreneurial Excellence Award he received at NGA’s recent convention — has had a “tremendous” effect on the momentum of the cause, which up until then hadn’t seen “a great deal of progress,” DiPasquale admitted.

    Characterizing the proposed $400 million as “very helpful,” DiPasquale noted initiatives currently underway in such U.S. cities as Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Oakland, Calif., that would certainly benefit from further funding. He added that NGA would work very closely with the federal government on how funds would be applied, and would take a leadership role in developing the public-private coalitions necessary to the various state programs.

    What such initiatives amply demonstrate, according to DiPasquale, is that with the passion, leadership and skills of grocers like Brown, the industry “can do anything.”

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