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A nonprofit supermarket in Pa. offers hope for suburban poor

Chester, Pa. used to be known for its shipbuilding, but manufacturing has now all but disappeared. It has a 13 percent unemployment rate and more than 30 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. It’s also a food desert. With more than 30,000 residents, Chester hasn’t had a supermarket since the last one closed 12 years ago — until now.

Fare & Square, the first nonprofit grocery store in the nation, opened two months ago.

Residents like Jennifer Kurz, 45, are grateful they now only have to walk a few blocks for fresh, healthy food. Kurz helps many of her elderly neighbors and used to have to take several buses to go grocery shopping.

“Chester needs this, the babies need this, the elderly need this,” she said. “They need to eat properly, they need to eat healthy, and it’s quick, it’s close by, and you’re not losing no money when you think about it.”

Bill Clark, who heads the nonprofit hunger relief organization Philabundance, came up with the concept for the store.

“We’ve used charitable and government dollars to actually build it all out so I actually don’t have any real estate costs. I don’t have a rent or a mortgage payment to make so that helps me keep my cost low as well.”

He thinks similar nonprofit, low-priced stores are a key way to address hunger outside urban areas.

While 60 percent of Fare & Square shoppers receive food stamps, shoppers in need are also eligible to receive a 7 percent store credit every time they make a purchase.

The store provides desperately needed employment. More than 40 new jobs were created when the store opened and more than 80 percent of its workers live in Chester.

The store also provides access to social services.

“We’re negotiating with some of the health providers for dental screening and prenatal screening,” said Clark. “We have plans in the works to do nutritional education and cooking schools.”

While the goal of the store is to bring healthy, affordable food to the community, many shoppers say there’s an additional upside.

“The most important thing is, it’s safe,” said Lisa Hall, 47. “You don’t have to worry about being robbed or anything, and you know they got plenty of security here.”

Hall helps her goddaughter, who works two jobs, take care of her three children.

She brings the kids by a few times a day for a treat or a snack.

“All the other stores around the corner close at 4 o’clock, and I’d say, ‘Why you’d close at 4 o’clock?’ And they’d say, ‘Do you know what neighborhood you’re in?'”

Chester’s crime rate is almost three times higher than the national average, and its schools consistently rank as some of the worst in the state.

Clark hopes that the store may be the first part of Chester’s renewal.

“A community of this size … without a supermarket says something about the decay of a community. Conversely, the arrival of a supermarket says something about their resurgence.”

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