The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

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Jeff Brown Tackles Food Deserts

Jeff Brown Tackles Food Deserts

In the News

February 21, 2010

The growing obesity epidemic is a frightening reality in the United States. According to a recent Emory University study, an estimated 103 million Americans will be obese by 2018. But combating one of America’s biggest health issues with weight management tips may not be enough to curtail the problem. 

The USDA reports that 23.5 million people live in low-income areas – or “food deserts” – that are more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. In these under-served communities, fresh produce is hard to come by. Instead, there is often easy access to fast food restaurants and more affordable, pre-packaged, higher-calorie foods. And entering these markets as a grocer presents many roadblocks, financial and otherwise.

Jeff Brown, president and CEO of Brown’s Super Stores, Inc., which operates 10 Philadelphia-area supermarkets under the ShopRite banner, was recently recognized by President Obama for his commitment to improving the availability and quality of fresh food by establishing new or renovated grocery stores in under-served areas. His non-profit organization, UpLift Solutions, Inc., works with government agencies, non-profits and businesses to create job opportunities and address issues specific to “at-risk” communities – like limited food access, substandard education, inadequate safety and unequal opportunities. Launching the organization was not without its challenges, however. 

In 2004, State Representative Dwight Evans (PA) approached Jeff Brown with his concerns about food deserts in Pennsylvania. Representative Evans enlisted the Reinvestment Fund, which combined public and private funds to finance the initiative, as well as the Food Trust, a non-profit advocacy group that was researching the problem, and the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI). 

Together, they set out to prove that government participation could help bring supermarkets to under-served neighborhoods. By working to bring down operating costs with loans, business models were able to thrive in these areas. Brown then went to the local community leaders to hear their thoughts on why food desert problems existed, what they could do to overcome their challenges and how they could work together to help each other. 

Today Brown's Super Stores operates four participating ShopRites in the program, and many more urban communities nationwide could be launching similar programs soon. Brown says the impact on the communities they serve has been tremendous.

“The community is responding really well to us – business is doing well and we feel like we’ve become part of the neighborhood,” he says.

Brown’s ShopRites, he says, seem to give the community a sense of pride, as associates are hired from the local neighborhood and many new jobs have been created. Throughout the process, the community has become very loyal and protective of his stores.

"The goal of everything we do, from our ShopRites to our non-profit organization is to help the communities we serve. Our mission statement is 'to bring joy to the lives of the people we serve’.”

Without the right development incentives to attract well-rounded food stores to under-served neighborhoods, there is a risk of perpetuation and higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses. In other words, consumers who live in these economically disadvantaged areas are also at a nutritional disadvantage. Unfortunately, though, the problem is pervasive across the country. 

“Hunger or food insecurity exists for a number of reasons, including unemployment or under employment, disability or illness. These are all reasons why people have a difficult time putting enough food on their table. The goal of the FFFI is really to provide access to food in places that have traditionally been underserved by supermarket retailers. To address the issue of hunger, we need to address the underlying issue of poverty that is tied to unemployment and other factors,” says Brown. 

He adds, “This type of venture is a partnership – to succeed in this, you must have government and local community support when taking the Fresh Food Funding Initiative and adapting it to your city. You must really care about the community and be committed to it. Having access to quality, affordable food benefits everyone.”   

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