Cheltenham ShopRite Owner Honored Again by the White House

Example of a food desert

Cheltenham ShopRite owner Jeff Brown is no stranger to White House honors. Since the start of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative to combat childhood obesity, he’s been a presence at the 2010 state of the union speech (sitting with the first lady), a VIP at a February, 2010 Philadelphia event featuring Obama highlighting local successes, and this week at the White House where he was an important figure in the effort to promote the program.

Brown, President and CEO of Brown’s Superstores, which runs the Cheltenham ShopRite in Cheltenham Square Mall, was cited by Obama as one of the entreprenaurs “stepping up.” He owns a chain of 10 ShopRite supermarkets in lower-income neighborhoods across the region. The 47-year-old son of a grocer takes credit for the opening of four stores that provide fresh foods and healthier options to underserved disadvantaged communities. His latest project is a market now under construction in Nicetown, on the site of the old Hunting Park Avenue Tastykake plant.

“They decided to make that investment,” said Obama, according to a White House transcript, “because what they knew was how big that payoff could be. Not just in terms of dollars, but in the lives of our children, the lives that we can save . . . And I think that Jeff Brown put it best when he said, and these are his words: “We’re not going to be on the sidelines.” He said, “We’re going to be right with our communities using what we’re good at: solving problems through innovation and entrepreneurial thinking.”

The Cheltenham ShopRite is under an $11 million renovation-expansion, which is slated for completion by the end of the year. $5 million of the funding is from the state of PA. The expansion will add 10,000 square feet and some 75 new employees.

One of the cornerstsones of “Let’s Move” is the elimination of “food deserts.” Food deserts are areas which isolate residents from healthy foods at an affordable price and are associated with a variety of diet-related health problems . They are common in rural as well as urban areas, especially in low income minority communities.

The administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, announced by Michelle Obama in February 2010, is designed to support the development of grocery stores in food deserts. The initiative received a $35 million budget this year, well short of the hundreds of millions requested by President Obama. The administration asked for more than $300 million to be approved for the next budget.

According to The New York Times, Walgreens has pledged to reach 4.8 million people in “desert” areas by turning 1,000 of its locations into “food oasis stores” that will sell fruit, vegetables and other groceries that they do not typically stock. Wal-Mart said it would open or expand food sections in 275 to 300 stores by 2016, employing an estimated 40,000 people. SuperValu, which owns many regional grocery chains like Jewel-Osco and ACME, promised to open 250 new Save-A-Lot stores in five years.

Speaking in the East Room of the White House, the first lady said pointedly: “We can talk all we want about calorie counts and recipes and how to serve balanced meals. But if parents can’t buy the food they need to prepare those meals, if their only options for groceries are in the corner gas station or the local mini-mart, then all that is just talk. It’s all just talk, and that is not what “Let’s Move” is about.”

“. . . And if a parent wants to pack a piece of fruit in a child’s lunch, if a parent wants to add some lettuce for a salad at dinner, they shouldn’t have to take three city buses, or pay some expensive taxi to go to another community to make that possible.

“Last year, I had the privilege of visiting Philly, a city where just seven years ago there were fewer supermarkets per person than almost anywhere in America. But today, because of the dedicated efforts of elected officials and nonprofit organizations and businesses across the state of Pennsylvania, they have funded 88 supermarket projects in 34 counties, bringing nutritious food to more than 500,000 people in that state. And they’re projecting to create or preserve more than 5,000 jobs, often in communities that need these jobs the most.

“We take risks. We make sacrifices so that our kids can have a better life than we had, so that they can have opportunities that we never dreamed of.”

“So make no mistake about it: This is a big deal. It is a really big deal,” said the first lady.