A Healthy (and Profitable) Oasis in Philly’s Food Deserts

06 Oct, 2012

by Sarah Treuhaft, via Yes! Magazine

  Philadelphia's mayor, Michael Nutter, visits ShopRite after the opening of a new branch in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania. Photo by City of Philadelphia.Want proof that the goals of business and the needs of the most vulnerable can align? Meet Jeff Brown, fourth-generation grocer and owner of the 10-store ShopRite regional chain based in Philadelphia.

By mixing old-fashioned customer service with innovative new approaches, Brown is chipping away at the nation’s jobs challenge, starting in the communities hardest-hit by the financial crisis.

A second chance for ex-offenders

After being sentenced to jail for five years for selling drugs in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Louis Rivera was determined to turn his life around. An eighth-grade dropout, he spent his first year in prison preparing for and obtaining his GED. Upon release, he moved to Philadelphia and sent out dozens of resumes, hoping, at age 31, to secure the first real job of his life.

No employer responded. Louis was frustrated and scared. “I knew I could not go back to the life I had been leading,” he told me. “I needed a break.”

He walked down the street from his apartment to Jeff Brown’s ShopRite grocery store, where he had already applied online. He said to the hiring manager, “I’m not leaving here until you give me a job.” She laughed at his mix of pluck and desperation, and after listening to his story, gave him that break: a minimum-wage job in the seafood department.

Louis had gone to the right place. He did not know it at the time, but ShopRite is the only grocery-store chain in Philadelphia, and possibly in the nation, with an explicit focus on hiring ex-offenders. Jeff Brown explains that these employees are just as successful as a group compared to those without criminal records. “I have not seen evidence that the fears are true,” he says.

Brown believes his success with hiring ex-offenders is due to a strong partnership with a nonprofit workforce training organization, ABO Haven, that screens ex-offender candidates to find those who are a good match for the grocery’s culture, provides training in “soft skills” like how to be successful in a work environment, and then checks back in with the workers once they are on the jobs. From a profit perspective, hiring ex-offenders actually saves Brown money, since workforce-training dollars support the initial screening, training, and follow-up.

Four years and three promotions later, Louis is a model of the type of upward mobility that is on the wane in America. As assistant store manager, he brings home $53,000 per year plus benefits. He has been able to provide for his fiancée and three children, and now owns a home and two cars. He plans to stay with the company, and hopes to become a store manager one day.

Greening food deserts

Brown is also one of the first grocers to recognize the profitability of opening large grocery stores in underinvested low-income communities and communities of color, which other retailers have fled or avoided. Six of Brown’s stores are located in areas that were “food deserts” before he opened his doors: low-income neighborhoods without grocery stores or other healthy food retailers. Food-desert neighborhoods tend to have higher rates of diet-related health problems like obesity and diabetes.

One of those stores is located in West Philadelphia’s Parkside neighborhood. An African-American community of about 100,000, Parkside went without a supermarket for nearly three decades.

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