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Poverty puts Chester into a food desert

One in an occasional series. Eyeing a potato at Frederick Douglass Christian School in Chester one day in the fall, a first grader called it a "tomato." Another said he wasn't sure he'd ever seen one before.

First graders (from left) E'myah Herring, Mya Nicholson, and Ja'Niyah Van, all 6, taste sweet potato dip at Douglass Christian School. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)
First graders (from left) E'myah Herring, Mya Nicholson, and Ja'Niyah Van, all 6, taste sweet potato dip at Douglass Christian School. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)Read more

One in an occasional series.

Eyeing a potato at Frederick Douglass Christian School in Chester one day in the fall, a first grader called it a "tomato." Another said he wasn't sure he'd ever seen one before.

"How do you spell 'nasty?' " asked Ja'Niyah Van, 6, tasting a baked sweet potato for the first time.

No one can blame the pupils for not recognizing or appreciating fresh food. There isn't a single supermarket in Chester. A person could travel end to end in the city of 30,000 people and find just two stores that sell potatoes or any other fresh foods.

These days, the students learn what produce looks like from Greener Partners, a Malvern nonprofit whose experts come in regularly to teach about seasonal and local foods. As a result, the children can now speak with their families about potatoes, arugula, fresh spinach, and the bounty of the earth.

What most of them can't do is buy or eat any of the food.

Chester is part of the First Congressional District, the second-hungriest in the United States behind the Bronx and the poorest place in Pennsylvania, according to a national poll, one of the largest ever taken. The city is at the western edge of the oddly drawn district, which snakes east along the Delaware River into parts of Northeast Philadelphia.

Once a bustling center of U.S. shipbuilding, and renowned as the city where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to seminary, Chester lost industry and half its population in the years after World War II.

Without work, the city imploded. As in other postindustrial Pennsylvania cities, jobs disappeared while urban pathologies accrued.

When poverty increased, many businesses moved away, including supermarkets. Chester has become a so-called supermarket desert, Sahara-like in its dearth of Acmes, Genuardis, and ShopRites.

Such stores, generally 60,000 to 100,000 square feet, require a volume of traffic that can't be generated in Chester, said James Turner, director of economic development for the Chester Economic Development Authority.

Instead, Chester has about 100 corner and convenience stores, takeout places, bars and grills, and one or two sit-down restaurants within its approximately five square miles, according to a survey by Marina Barnett and Chad Freed of Widener University in Chester. The investigators created a food map of the city to catalogue resources.

"This is not healthy food being sold in corner stores," said Barnett, a professor of social work. "It's heavily processed, meant to be on a shelf forever, and more expensive than supermarket food. It's just terrible."

Of the two stores that sell produce, Barnett said, one is a tiny farmer's market with limited selections that's open only three days a week. The other is essentially a run-down, large corner store with a few vegetables. (There's a co-op in town, but it requires a $200 buy-in, which most residents cannot afford.)

"I wouldn't buy the food," Barnett said as she walked through the larger store one day. It offered a few fruits and vegetables, frozen meat, hot dogs, and chicken parts along with five aisles of dry and canned goods.

Both stores are downtown, where few people feel comfortable shopping, Barnett said.

"I don't shop downtown very much anymore because it's not safe," said Pat Pringle, 60, a lifelong Chester resident. "And there's not too much to buy, and the produce isn't that good."

The nearest real supermarkets are outside Chester, one to two miles away, said Freed, who teaches environmental science.

Because 30 percent of the population is too poor to own cars, that makes shopping for good food difficult, Barnett said her research has shown.

"People here don't venture out much," said Barnett. As a result, "many have a complete disconnect from good food. They don't know how to shop for it, how to keep it, or how to cook it. There's a lot of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for dinner."

Lack of access to healthy food contributes to obesity, diabetes and hypertension.

Edward Emmett, an expert in environmental medicine from the University of Pennsylvania, has shown that instances of obesity and overweight in Chester children ages 2 through 17 are roughly twice those of similarly aged children throughout the rest of Delaware County.

"We are not doing well in Chester," he said.

Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, the area's largest hunger-relief agency, put it another way: "This food desert is a bottomless hole of need."

To help, Clark has been planning to open a new sort of food pantry in Chester, which he says would be the only one of its kind in the United States: a nonprofit supermarket filled with fresh food.

Unlike every other American pantry, this one would charge people nominal amounts for food. Pantries normally distribute donated foods to those in need without charge.

But "there isn't enough donated food to fill this hole," Clark said. So he would have to stock his shelves with food that he buys and pass the cost onto his clients, at an extremely low mark-up. Clark hasn't figured precisely how much of a discount there will be.

The problem now is money. Such a store - planned to be 12,000 to 14,000 square feet - would cost $4 million to create. Clark said he has half that now, crediting U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) for raising $2 million, mostly from state money. Brady represents the First Congressional District.

Brady said in an interview that he is trying to get federal money for the project, and has even spoken to Michelle Obama about it. She has made childhood obesity and supermarket deserts a priority, and he hopes she will use her influence to steer some U.S. Department of Agriculture money toward Chester.

"We're trying to make Chester a nondesert," Brady said. "All people there have is junk food to eat."

If funding is secured - "which could be tomorrow or months from now," Clark said - construction at the already-chosen site would take six to eight months, he added. Clark declined to disclose the location.

"We think this is the answer," Clark said. "But we need the stars to align. And we need cash."

A city of 'used-to-bes'

Chester Police Officer Robert Jones grew up in the city, which he refers to in "used-to-bes": "That used to be a jewelry store," "that used to be a bank."

The 46-year-old officer with the city's Weed and Seed program - a statewide initiative combining community service with law enforcement - rides through Chester these days looking numb.

"There's so much potential here," said Jones, "but so much sadness."

On a drive one afternoon, he eyed the unemployed young people in the streets. "Most of our citizens have problems getting jobs because they have records" from selling drugs and the frequent violence that plagues Chester, Jones said. "You got people out here who can't pass urine tests or can't fill out applications."

This was the case with Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack, which was precluded by state law from hiring as many residents as originally planned because so many had records, said Dave Schiocchetti, executive director of the Economic Development Authority.

Driving past a corner store, Jones saw a 15-year-old girl he knew on the sidewalk wearing Elmo pajamas and holding her baby. She was screaming at another teenager. "You have a baby with you," Jones told her. "Stop that!"

The girl quieted quickly. Jones said she is a special-needs student with anger issues.

"They make stupid mistakes, but there's no one to guide them and no dads, 'cause they're locked up," he said. In a small and isolated place like Chester, Jones said, many men have children with different women, and kinship lines are not readily known.

Young men involved in shootings sometimes learn afterward that they were related to the victim. "I've seen kids find out afterward and yell out, 'Oh, I just shot my cousin,'" Jones said. "Or, some kids wind up dating their half-sisters or brothers because they don't know."

Driving further, Jones stopped in front of an empty field and stared in anger. It was to be the site of a supermarket, but the deal fell through and now the space is used as a remote parking lot for the new PPL Park soccer stadium.

"Most of our kids can't afford to go to soccer games," Jones said.

Hampered by late-night shootings and ubiquitous poverty, Chester officials try to improve the city. For example, appealing suburban-style houses were recently built in a violent section of the city.

But problems persist, including environmental woes, such as air pollution from diesel exhaust on I-95 that exacerbates asthma - already too prevalent because of indoor pollutants deriving from roaches, mites and mold, according to Emmett.

Chester has had some recent successes, including adding 2,000 jobs in the last five years. Many of these were low-wage positions at the casino and the soccer stadium, officials said. Despite this, census figures released last week show that the poverty rate in the city increased from 27.5 percent to 36 percent between 2000 and 2009.

Turner said the dismal economy may have accounted for the surge in poverty.

Unemployment is around 16 percent, according to Turner. That's nearly twice the 8.6 statewide unemployment rate.

What's more, between 2005 and 2009, Chester's median household income fell from $33,087 to $24,978, the lowest in the Pennsylvania suburbs - though not the lowest in the First Congressional District, which is in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia at $17,754.

Finally, while the Department of Agriculture reports that 15 percent of Americans are food-insecure - unable to purchase enough food for a healthy life - in Chester nearly 24 percent report not having enough food to eat, according to a Philabundance survey in July.

"Back in the day, this was a happening town," Jones said, stopping near a clock at run-down DeShong Park, stuck on 6:42 since no one remembers when. "It used to be great."

Hungry children

At a Chester Housing Authority facility that houses a learning center, Kim Jennings, 49, a volunteer, said she knew so many hungry children.

"I know what hunger looks like in children - the depression in their eyes," said Jennings, a mother of five, who fled a middle-class life in Chester when her former husband became abusive. On the run for a while in Virginia, Jennings was homeless some of the time.

"Your kids are thin but they don't complain," said Jennings, starting to cry. "They don't want to shame you for not providing. And if you see your mom is struggling and you tell the teacher you're hungry, there's a fear you'll be taken out of your parent's house.

"To this day, my children can't look at peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."

In the west end of Chester later that evening, about two dozen people came in from the cold to the warmth and light of the food pantry at the Bernardine Center, a Catholic advocacy group housed in a small two-story building on Ninth Street.

Jennings' parental lament was echoed in the tiny, immaculate pantry.

" 'Mom, I'm hungry,' " my kids constantly tell me," said Valerie Howard, 47, a laid-off housekeeper and married mother of two children, ages 14 and 16.

"I have knocked on neighbors' doors, asking, 'Do you have some bread?' " said Howard, tired-looking with angry eyes. "You beg if you have to. You beg for your children."

Howard's husband works as a short-order cook, earning too much to qualify for food stamps but not enough to pay all the food bills, she said. "I have difficulty saying to the children, 'Sorry, guys, there's nothing.' It's heartbreaking."

Meanwhile, need in Chester grows unabated. The number of people visiting the pantry is up from 291 families last Thanksgiving to 341 this year, said MaryLou Laboy, food pantry manager.

She said she wanted to do more, and sometimes gave clients her own furniture and dishes just to help.

"People who aren't poor tell me the poor are just people who want everything for free," Laboy said. "But I tell them, come to Chester.

"You can't understand this until you walk in their shoes. Then you'll know."