Planting good business seeds in the inner city

Sitting with first Lady Michelle Obama during the president’s State of the Union speech was local grocery store owner Jeff Brown, who was singled out for opening supermarkets in poor neighborhoods.

The recognition is the second time in recent months that the White House has praised Brown’s social conscience that is also translated into good business.

Jeff Brown holds a basket of ethnic foods sold at one of his stores in West Philadelphia.

A fourth-generation grocer from Gloucester County, N.J., Brown has opened four stores in Philadelphia in low-income neighborhoods. The bright and clean stores offer inner city residents healthy food at affordable prices.

It may seem like a small thing to suburban residents who can shop at a variety of neighborhood supermarkets that compete for their business and offer wide selection of fruits and vegetables.

In impoverished areas, commonly called “supermarket deserts” because of the dearth of stores, there are few places large enough to sell fresh food.

Instead, the poor are often held hostage to buy high-priced food at bodegas or convenience stores that offer little nutritional value. As such, urban shoppers are more likely to suffer from health problems complicated by bad eating habits such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

But consider the impact that a thriving supermarket has on a community. The stores not only offer nutritional food and good jobs, but also can help stabilize a neighborhood or turn around a troubled area.

With help from the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, an innovative Pennsylvania program, Brown has opened stores in low-income neighborhoods in West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia.

State Rep. Dwight Evans, (D., Philadelphia), deserves credit for starting the program in 2004 along. Jeremy Nowak’s Reinvestment Fund has also been instrumental in providing financing where other traditional lenders long ago walked away.

The program provides loans and grants to attract grocers to urban neighborhoods that have been ignored by most supermarket chains.

It has changed the landscape in Philadelphia and elsewhere, developing 68 supermarkets with $30 million in state seed money. That’s a change from the 1990s when the city had the second lowest number of supermarkets per capita.

New York, Illinois and Louisiana have since launched similar programs. The stores provide a national model to recruit more businesses like Brown’s to improve the quality of life in urban and rural communities.