Obama Cabinet Officials Kick off Urban Road Show

Article excerpt

Is the Obama Administration's urban policy ready for prime time?

In Philadelphia on July 23, it looked that way. White House Urban Affairs Director Adolfo Carrion led an impressive entourage of federal officials--two Cabinet officers included--to visit a rarity: a shining new inner-city supermarket.

Then, with local officials and activists, the federal officials held a town hall meeting celebrating the idea of strategic government intervention to bring fresh and healthy foods to the "food deserts" of low-income city neighborhoods (and some small towns).

Every major national grocery chain, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told the gathering, had been offered the West Philadelphia Parkside site. Not one had accepted.

It's a familiar story across America. Big supermarket chains, leery of higher security costs and focused on more affluent buyers, increasingly redline such areas. Local residents are left reliant on fast-food and convenience stores that sell mostly high-sugar, high-fat processed foods. The result: communities exposed to seriously higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

On top of that, notes the national nonprofit PolicyLink, communities lose the benefits that come with a full grocery store, including the creation of steady jobs at decent wages and the sparking of complementary retail stores and services nearby.

So how did Jeffrey Brown, a fourth-generation grocer with 10 other stores around Philadelphia, "crack the code" to open a $14.5 million, 69,700-square-foot market, offering fresh and regionally grown produce, and providing 130 union jobs in the struggling Parkside neighborhood?

The answer: the boost of a $1 million grant and $7 million in federal New Market Tax Credits for investors, arranged through the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative.

The state program idea was Philadelphia-born. First, a local nonprofit, the Food Trust, documented the nexus between the lack of supermarkets and high rates of disease. Then a city council task force suggested a financing program for grocery stores. Jeremy Nowak's Philadelphia-based but nationally recognized Reinvestment Fund for poor neighborhoods helped devise the specifics. State Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia successfully championed the idea in Harrisburg.

Since 2004, the state has allocated $30 million to the effort. But the Reinvestment Fund, tapping bank investments plus federal New Market Tax Credits, has amplified the total to $120 million, financing 69 projects statewide including 23 in Philadelphia (and half in rural towns). Programs based on the Pennsylvania model have now been proposed in New York, California, New Jersey and Ohio. …