By Dan Hardy
For more than a decade, Chester City has been without a supermarket, leading to its designation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a "food desert."
That will soon change, and with a unique nonprofit twist.
Friday afternoon, Philabundance, best known for collecting and distributing emergency food aid throughout the Philadelphia area, announced that it had purchased a mostly vacant building on Ninth Street in Chester's West End. That building housed the last supermarket in the city to close, in 2001.
In about a year, Philabundance hopes to open a new 13,000-square-foot "Fare and Square" grocery store. Bill Clark, the group's president, said it would be the first supermarket in the United States operated by a food-aid group as a nonprofit venture.
Standing on a loading dock at the back of the store, Clark said: "Right now, the building is a mess." But when it opens, he pledged, "it will rival any market in any neighborhood. It will have all the healthy food products you would expect to find in any American grocery store."
State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware) noted that it was rainy, gloomy, and cold outside Friday, but "for Chester, today, the sun is shining; it's a great day."
The cost to purchase and renovate the building is about $4.5 million. So far, about $2.2 million has been raised through foundation and government grants and private donations. U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who represents Chester, said Friday that he was talking to the U.S. Agriculture Department about federal aid, and other fund-raising continues. "We will get there," he said in an interview.
The store would provide about 30 jobs, mostly to residents of the impoverished city of 34,000 people. But beyond that, Brady said, "It's important for the city's children to get the fresh food and produce they need. Chester has been a desert; now it will become an oasis."
The store, which Philabundance officials said they hope would open in the late winter or early spring of 2013, would sell healthy food at low prices, and also distribute some free food obtained through donations to Philabundance, officials said. And it would help people apply for food stamps (now called SNAP benefits) and use them at the store.
The Fare and Square grocery would share space with Family Dollar, already in operation in the front part of the building. This dollar store, Clark said, would provide some of the nonfood items people look for when they go shopping.
Brady's First Congressional District is the fourth hungriest district in the United States, according to a 2011 Food Insecurity Survey. There are 34 other food deserts in the Philadelphia area - places where it is difficult for residents to get to stores that sell healthy, affordable food.
Brady and Clark said they hope the Chester market would be a pilot, leading to similar ventures in other food-starved neighborhoods. "We're going to crack this," Brady said. "This can make a difference."