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Wanted: inner-city supermarkets

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“What people are forced to do in some communities is travel to supermarkets in suburban locations, and the cost of gasoline has risen dramatically,” says Ken Klothen, a deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, the state arm of the partnership.

Diet was the main concern in 2002 when an employee of the Food Trust – a Philadelphia group dedicated to increasing access to healthy, affordable food – stopped state Rep. Dwight Evans on his evening walk. Public health and economic development initiatives existed in many low-income Philadelphia areas. But the ends weren’t meeting, and residents’ food shopping options were still drugstores, expensive corner shops, or fast food.

“We hadn’t had a real policy about food access that was coherent, and the big challenges are the issue of obesity, the generation of jobs, and community transformation,” Mr. Evans says.

Convinced a grocery store initiative could be an answer, Evans persuaded the governor to establish the FFFI with $10 million included in a 2005 stimulus bill, followed by another $10 million in 2006 and in 2007.

The Reinvestment Fund, a private nonprofit lender and investor in low-income communities, was tapped to manage the fund. The Food Trust and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition round out the partnership.

Public-private state initiatives can be hard to manage, says Steve Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis and professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Mr. Goldsmith heads a Harvard awards program for policy innovations, in which the FFFI is a finalist. “It’s often very complex, and the fact that public money was flexible and the private sector was involved looking at risk” in this dual-purpose initiative is intriguing.

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