IF ANYBODY WAS born to participate in Pennsylvania's Fresh Food Financing Initiative, it's Jeff Brown.
A fourth-generation food retailer who grew up visiting his dad's West Philadelphia store, Brown embraces diversity and loves connecting with communities.
"We have more than one bottom line here," Brown said in his spotless Parkside ShopRite. "The community's success is important, too."
Brown owns 11 ShopRite stores, four of them opened in underserved Philadelphia communities with help from the financing initiative begun by state Rep. Dwight Evans.
All those stores have community meeting rooms available for neighborhood groups for free, usually with refreshments thrown in. Brown hires from the neighborhood, meets regularly with community leaders and makes a point of getting to know his customers.
"I train my managers to talk to people, get to know them and ask what they like to eat," Brown said.
That's why his Parkside store has a halal butcher counter with fresh meats for Muslim customers, as well as special sections for Caribbean and West African foods, like puna yams, stock fish or corned mutton in a can.
"And one of our most important items is our sweet-potato pie, made fresh every day from an exact Southern recipe," Brown said. "So many customers tell us it's just like their grandmother used to make."
Parkside Association President Lucinda Hudson said that she's pleased that Brown was willing to hire staff from the community, including ex-offenders who need a second chance.
"For them to be here, and be a real community partner, I just can't tell you how great this is," Hudson said, adding that she and other community leaders feel protective of the store.
"We're their security guards," Hudson said. "We make sure if we see kids about to vandalize or whatever, we make them leave."
Brown was among those who went to the White House June 5 to brief Obama administration officials on the program, and he has begun a nonprofit organization to consult with other food retailers interested in poor and working-class communities.