Tonight, when President Obama gives his State of the Union address, he's expected to acknowledge a fourth-generation New Jersey grocer who builds supermarkets in poor neighborhoods, including four in Philadelphia.
Jeff Brown, 46, who runs Brown's Super Stores Inc. of Westville, Gloucester County, acknowledged yesterday that he would be a guest of honor seated in Michelle Obama's box in the House of Representatives during the speech.
"It's cool," Brown said. "So cool."
Obama is expected to mention the idea of building more supermarkets in impoverished areas, commonly called supermarket deserts because of the dearth of stores large enough to sell fresh food.
Many poor people must shop at bodegas or convenience stores with high prices and food with little nutritional value, hunger experts say.
Brown received a call Friday from the White House Office of Urban Affairs, proffering the State of the Union invitation, said his wife, Sandy, who also is his publicist.
"They have a reception at the White House first," Sandy Brown said. "I get to go to that with Jeff. Then he'll go to the House and I'll stay in the White House to watch it.
"It's certainly not a bad way to spend a Wednesday."
Brown has been working with the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a Pennsylvania program that combines state and private money.
State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) started the initiative in conjunction with two entities: the Reinvestment Fund, a community-development financial institution; and the Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that works to improve access to healthy, affordable food, and to educate families about nutrition.
"The president is looking at health care and jobs, and the first lady is looking at obesity," Evans said yesterday, explaining the tie-in that connects the Initiative with Brown and the White House. Michelle Obama has not only promoted healthy eating and access to fresh fruits and vegetables; she also has begun a White House garden.
Supermarkets with wholesome food help fight disease and obesity caused by poor people eating junk food, Evans said. And large markets create jobs for neighborhood people, he added.
Evans said he introduced Brown to White House officials, who in turn came to Philadelphia in July to praise Brown's Parkside ShopRite supermarket in West Philadelphia.
At the time, Brown said it was gratifying to have his store recognized as an urban model. Tonight, that recognition continues.
Brown has five Philadelphia stores, with four in low-income neighborhoods: two in South Philadelphia and two in West Philadelphia.
He said that his family of four generations of grocers taught him to develop a social conscience.
"Normal behavior in our family is to be concerned about the less fortunate," said Brown, whose four sons do work for nonprofits.
"Jeff Brown is a remarkable guy," said Yael Lehmann, executive director of the Food Trust. "By bringing supermarkets with fresh, high-quality food to people, he's making these neighborhoods healthier. And now what he's done has gained the attention of the president of the United States."