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Healthy, happy community starts in good food aisle

The opening of a renovated Shop Rite in Cheltenham is the latest success story in recent efforts to open thriving grocery stores in poor neighborhoods and change the landscape and lifestyles.

Fourth-generation grocer Jeff Brown, who operates 11 stores in the region, has used his social conscience to create a business model that has won accolades from the White House.

The newest venture, a 76,000-square-foot renovated store, is part of a $12 million project in Cheltenham that was financed with state and private funding. The complex includes a clinic, and office and retail space.

The store may seen like a small thing to suburban residents for whom well-stocked neighborhood supermarkets are a given. But in many poor areas, there are few places large enough to sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Such neighborhoods are commonly called "supermarket deserts."

In Philadelphia, more than half of residents in low-income areas travel to a supermarket outside their neighborhoods, according to a study by the Reinvestment Fund, which provides funding for neighborhood projects.

Those forced to shop in their neighborhoods have few options but to purchase high-priced food with little nutritional value at bodegas or convenience stores. As a result, urban shoppers are more likely to suffer from health problems that are complicated by bad eating habits, such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

According to the U.S. Census, 10 percent of all households in the city suffer from low or very low food security. In other words, there is not enough food to meet their basic needs.

Philadelphia once had the second-lowest number of supermarkets per capita. But that has changed under a state program spearheaded by State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Philadelphia) that provides loans and grants to attract grocers to urban neighborhoods.

Still, there are not enough grocery stores where Philadelphians can purchase healthy food at affordable prices.

The Reinvestment Fund study found that it costs more to operate a supermarket in urban areas. For example, training costs seven times more than in suburban areas.

More programs such as the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which helped Brown establish stores in low-income neighborhoods, are needed to encourage supermarket chains to open stores in underserved neighborhoods.

More grocers need to understand what Jeff Brown knows: People need access to good food where they live.