By: Kathleen Carey
CHESTER — The purple, white and green sign jutted into the brilliant blue sky Saturday morning and a purple inflatable carrot whirled in the wind as dignitaries and community residents congregated at Ninth and Trainer streets to celebrate the realization of a dream they had held in their hearts for more than a decade.
Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, stood in the parking lot before the 11 a.m. opening of the 16,000-square-foot Fare & Square grocery store, with his nerves electrifying his body as he stood on the precipice of a vision he had held and persisted to serve Chester’s underserved community with nutritious and affordable food.
In the midst of being approached by various assistants, he looked up and paused to take the moment in.
“It’s the culmination of a dream, really,” the Radnor resident said. “I feel like I have lightning in my veins.”
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture identified Chester as one of the regional food deserts, some community leaders started to identify resources to fulfill that need.
The last grocery store in Chester was the West End Market, now home to Fare & Square, and it closed in 2001. Of the 34,000 city residents, more than half earn less than 200 percent of the poverty level and many traveled outside the city limits, often by public transportation, to get food on their table.
“When we heard that there was a problem … I knew that was wrong,” said U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-1, of Philadelphia, whose district includes Chester.
George Matysik, Philabundance’s director of government relations and public policy, said the congressman issued a directive after the problem surfaced and the grocery store was its answer.
“You need to do this,” he said Brady directed. “And you need to do this in the city of Chester.”
For Clark at Philabundance, the parent company of Fare & Square, the years-long efforts at fighting hunger in Chester were waning. “It was a reality that we were running out of options,” he said. ‘The tide was turning. We were starting to lose the battle.”
Many societal facets came together — state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-9, of Chester, state Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-159, of Chester, and Mayor John Linder — to make it work. At its completion, Philabundance was able to raise $7 million to rehabilitate the building to become the nation’s first nonprofit grocery store with 70 employees, 80 percent of whom are city residents.
When the store opened Saturday, it listed 4,700 households as members, with 30 percent outside the city limits. Officials anticipate serving up to 8,000 households.
Robert Green stood by the 79-cents-per-pound collard greens and shared his description of the store. “Wonderful!” he said.
The 50-year Chester resident and single dad said it will assist greatly in providing adequate nutrition for his sons, ages 11and 15.
“Bringing this market to our neighborhood makes it easy for us to live,” he said, adding that he instantaneously appreciated the store’s product freshness, access, roominess, carts and employees.
Mary Cooper of the Martin Luther King Homes was at the end of the aisles and offered her delight of Fare & Square, besides not having to take the bus to get groceries at BJ’s.
“So far, the prices are alright,” she said as she perused the five-for-$5 Rice A Roni. “Usually, they are $1.69 at the market.”
Her red basket overflowed with $2 Stroehmann hamburger rolls and whole wheat bread loaves.
Clark explained that all of the food is purchased new and none of it is donated.
“We use the same suppliers that grocery stores use,” he said, explaining that many offer Fare & Square discounts that are passed onto the customers.
And as the aisles were filled with patrons smiling, greeting each other and filling their baskets and carts, Chester resident Kathryn Kelly noted the goodwill evident in a nonprofit grocery store, both in the employees and administrators and in the customers as well.
“I’m glad it’s here,” Kelly said. “It shows that we can come together as a community and gather like this and show that we really do love each other and usually that’s not seen.”
The Rev. Westravic Johns of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Linwood was onsite Saturday to support the opening of the store and to purchase some Arizona tea and a loaf of bread.
He said a representative from Fare & Square was planning to visit his church today to share her experience.
Johns said the opening of the first grocery store in Chester represented an intrinsic element needed in the city for transformation to take place.
“We need people of goodwill,” he said. “People of goodwill are rising up. That change is coming.”
And for thousands of people who waited more than a decade, the store symbolized the possibility inherent when belief and persistence are present.
“We must keep hope alive,” Johns said. “We must keep hope alive in a hopeless situation. It gives hope.”
Fare & Square at Ninth and Trainer streets in Chester will be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. Membership is free to all and those who earn 200 percent of the poverty line or less can receive Carrot Cash benefits, offering them an additional 7 percent discount on the prices. Visit FareandSquare.org or call 484-483-2500 for more details.