Chester has been without a supermarket for 12 years, an infamous distinction that partially led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to designate the city’s west end as a food desert.
The city finally anticipates losing that label with the launch of Fare and Square, a nonprofit grocery store opening Saturday at the same site vacated by the city’s last grocery store. Operated by Philabundance, the grocer will provide low-cost food to a community in which many residents lack both convenient access and the means to purchase healthy food.
“There’s not too many markets,” said Brian Reed, a lifelong Chester resident. “You’ve got to drive all the way out to the next store. Now, it’s closer.”
Fare and Square will provide residents of Chester’s west end access to a wide range of food that can be difficult — or impossible — to find in the myriad corner stores residents use as alternative grocery options. The market will include a deli, produce, fresh seafood, frozen foods and a meat department with an in-store butcher.
“When you walk in you will see the fixtures and the cash registers and the grocery store shelves like a supermarket, because it is a supermarket,” Philabundance President William Clark said.
Fare and Square will operate as a membership-only store. Anyone is eligible for a free membership, but some low-income shoppers will be eligible to receive a 7 percent rebate on all purchases. SNAP benefits also will be accepted.
The store is expected to service about 8,000 families. About 4,000 people already have registered as members, Clark said.
Chester Mayor John Linder said Philabundance officials have been “everywhere” in Chester marketing the opening of the Fare and Square.
“They really wanted to prove that they were worthy of getting help and assistance from the city and the state,” Linder said. “I think they really stepped up to the challenge.”
The need for the grocery store on the city’s west end was great, according to a food security survey developed by the USDA and administered by Philabundance in 2010.
That survey found that 23.6 percent of Chester residents experience disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. Another 44.5 percent eat foods of reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet. Those percentages dwarfed statewide and national statistics.
The USDA has labeled Chester’s west end as a food desert, a designation defined as a low-income census tract where a sustained number of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.
Clark anticipates that designation changing.
“With the arrival of Fare and Square, it would eliminate that food desert status as soon as the USDA gets around to reevaluating,” Clark said. “When they run their data again, as soon as the location of an active store is in their database, those census tracts no longer show up in their data.”
Shelly Ver Ploeg, an economist for the USDA Economic Research Service, said there are four measures of low income and low access areas included in the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas. She said most of Chester’s west end qualifies as a food desert under each measure.
Food access on the city’s east end, where a new Bottom Dollar market is being built, is not as severe, according to the atlas.
The USDA completed the atlas in March. Ver Ploeg said the USDA plans to update the information every two years.
By that point, Clark is hopeful that Fare and Square is a roaring success.
For decades, Philabundance has been known for providing thousands of pounds of donated food to pantries each year. However, Clark said food donations have declined in recent years, forcing the nonprofit to develop new ways to combat hunger in the Delaware Valley.
As a nonprofit grocery store, Fare and Square is the first of its kind.
“We had to do some serious thinking about how our organization would handle something like this and whether we even should,” Clark said. “We’ve been historically in the business of supplying a donated product to cupboards and doing the best we could. No one ever claimed we were providing enough food to all the people that needed it.”
Philabundance also considered providing free donated food at Fare and Square, but ultimately decided offering a rebate program would be more cost-efficient than stocking donated food, Clark said. Philabundance will continue donating food to 14 agencies in Chester, including 11 food cupboards.
“I don’t think that everybody that shops at the store will be a food cupboard client,” Clark said. “But not everyone who shops at the store will be totally capable of feeding their family without assistance. It’s going to be a mix of people.”
Making Fare and Square a reality took seven years from the time Clark first envisioned it. Philabundance had to convince others — and itself — that a nonprofit grocery store was a viable solution, he said.
Fare and Square cost $6.1 million to open, but another $1 million was spent simply developing the concept. The project was funded through a combination of private donations and public funding spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-1, of Philadelphia.
“I’m as happy as can be,” Brady said. “We got some funding for it. We found a location. We worked hand-in-hand with the other elected officials. … It’s a win-win everywhere.”
The store also will provide 69 full- and part-time jobs to a city with an unemployment rate of 13.3 percent, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Of the new employees, 57 are Chester residents.
“The real good aspect of it is now we can train people and they can get gainful employment,” said state Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-159, of Chester. “That’s a great aspect. Sure, we need healthy food, but folks will be able to be employed. Now, they can be a part of the solution and not the problem in the city.”
State Sen. Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi heralded Fare and Square as a convenient location not only for residents of the city’s west end, but also residents of Trainer, who share a similar lack of access to healthy foods.
“I think that’s something that had been missing from that area, especially for people who walk to the grocery store or use public transportation somewhere close to their home,” Pileggi said. “I think the people who walk will be most positively affected.
“It has the added benefits of providing a new use for a building that had been vacant for some time and employing local residents in the business of the grocery store itself.”
Located at 3103 W. Ninth St., Fare and Square will be open seven days per week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.