WHO SAYS WE can't get anything right in Philadelphia?

An innovative effort to bring supermarkets and fresh food to poor neighborhoods has been so successful, it has spawned imitators elsewhere and earned its creators a visit to the White House.

"We met for an hour-and-a-half with a bunch of [President] Obama's domestic policy people," said Philadelphia state Rep. Dwight Evans of his June 5 trip to Washington with other partners in the program. "They asked us to give them some ideas on whether this could become a federal program."

Called the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, the program has combined state funding with private money and the expertise of two Philly-based nonprofit entities to develop more than 60 food markets in under-served communities across Pennsylvania.

In Philadelphia alone, it has brought eight supermarkets (six open, two coming soon), and has funded improvements at more than two dozen smaller stores so that they can sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

The initiative has opened and expanded food stores across the state, but its brain trust is Philadelphia-based.

The program was aimed at addressing two related developments: the disappearance of supermarkets from struggling communities and the inner city, and studies showing a host of health problems among the poor related to too much soda, chips, and fast food and not enough fresh anything within shopping distance.

"When I was growing up in North Philadelphia, there was a Best Market right there on Columbia Avenue," Evans said. "I moved to Germantown, and there was a Penn Fruit. All those supermarkets have basically disappeared in these communities."

The flight of supermarkets from cities began in the 1960s, when large chains began pulling up stakes to build megastores in suburbs. It accelerated in the '70s and '80s as mergers and acquisitions reduced the number of food retailers.

One study in the 1990s found Philadelphia with the second-lowest number of supermarkets per capita, behind only Boston, which had lost 34 of its 50 markets.

Evans met several times, starting in the late '90s, with advocates and retailers, and decided that something had to be done.

There was no legislation involved - just Evans using his political clout to get $30 million in state money to match $90 million to be raised by the Reinvestment Fund, a Philly-based nonprofit with a successful track record of community-development projects.

They teamed up with the Food Trust, an advocacy group that had worked for years to get fresh food into communities through neighborhood farmers markets and other projects.

Six years into the effort, there's a lot more fresh food in poor and working-class neighborhoods.

"We used to have to take two buses to go shopping," said Lucinda Hudson, a leader in the Parkside community in West Philadelphia, which now has a ShopRite with help from the program.

"It was a struggle before, especially for the seniors," Hudson said. "The corner stores could overcharge and take advantage of people.

"Now I can run over to the market every day and get fresh things to make from scratch," Hudson said. "My mother is 90 years old. My husband is a Vietnam vet and an amputee. They need a good diet."

Any food retailer wanting to open or expand operations in an underserved, low- or moderate-income neighborhood could apply for help from the Fresh Food Financing Initiative.

The Reinvestment Fund evaluated proposals to ensure that retailers had a business plan and the management capacity to make a go of it with some start-up help.

Of more than 40 projects funded in Philadelphia, only two have failed so far.

Brian Lang, of the Food Trust, said that one important piece of the program has been an effort to improve the offerings at smaller stores in communities where a supermarket developer didn't appear.

"Flexibility is important here," Lang said. "Our goal is to get fresh foods into communities that don't have them. We've heard from some corner-store operators that they want to offer their customers healthy stuff, not just chips and soda."

About 30 neighborhood stores got funding for refrigeration units to sell fresh meats and produce.

The program has spawned regular inquiries and visits from around the country. New York City has developed a similar initiative, citing the success of the Pennsylvania program.

Obama administration officials were sufficiently intrigued by the food-financing initiative that they invited the Philadelphia team back for a second visit on Tuesday.

Jeremy Nowak, president of the Reinvestment Fund, said that it will be a challenge to replicate the initiative on a national level.

"In government, managers tend to think vertically, about keeping everything in their agency," Nowak said. "But to really get things done, you need to develop horizontal relationships. This initiative worked because we had all these partners working together, doing what they did best." *