Pittsburgh-Area Supermarket a Showplace for Healthier Food Options

    • November 22, 2011

Eighteen miles north of Pittsburgh, Ambridge, Pa., is an old factory town named for the American Bridge Company. The steel mills that once were a magnet for newly arrived immigrant workers are long closed; unemployment is high, and the population is half of what it was in the mid-1900s.

Ambridge has only one supermarket where its 8,000 residents and those from surrounding communities can access fresh fruits and vegetables daily. Thanks to a state grant and loan program that market, Safran Brothers Shop & Save, is a gleaming, up-to-date store and a business that is adding jobs to this economically depressed area.

Shop & Save is a supermarket chain, but each of its stores is independently owned. The Safran Brothers Shop & Save moved into its current location in 1995, and Phil Safran runs the store with his three grown children, the fourth generation in the family grocery business.

“We’ve had a store within this same five-block area for the past 50 years,” he says. “We’re proud to fill that role in the community, to improve the health and well-being of our residents.”

A $250,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI) combined with a substantial bank loan enabled Safran to expand the supermarket from 12,000 to 20,000 square feet in 2009 and to introduce a wider array of healthy food choices. The store has doubled its fresh produce offerings and increased its dairy and meat selection by 35 percent. The grant also allowed Safran to invest in new equipment, add electric wheelchair shopping carts for its many older customers and create 20 new jobs. Today the store generates upwards of $10 million in annual revenue and employs nearly 55 staff members.

“It’s become a showplace, a big, modern supermarket. People can’t believe it,” says Safran. “It allows us to offer a much bigger selection of fruits and vegetables, including 12 feet of fresh bagged salads.”

Access and affordability are critical determinants of food choices, and the Shop & Save is conveniently located in a walkable residential neighborhood. For customers outside the immediate neighborhood, including seniors and lower-income residents who depend on public transportation to do their shopping, the store runs a free, private shuttle service every Saturday. But unlike public transportation, the Shop & Save shuttle doesn’t limit how many grocery bags riders may bring on board—and the driver helps carry bags on and off the bus.

“Without the [FFFI] grant we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did,” says Safran. “The grant made it possible to get the loan we needed, and the loan made it possible to do a full-scale expansion and renovation that brings abundant, fresh, healthy produce to this lower-income area every day.”

The FFFI program, which is the first of its kind in the nation, provides financial assistance to help increase access to healthy foods in communities throughout Pennsylvania. The public-private partnership is a program of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development and is managed by The Reinvestment Fund, The Food Trust and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition. Since its creation in 2004, FFFI has approved more than $60 million to support more than 80 projects in 34 counties—benefiting more than 500,000 Pennsylvania residents and creating or preserving more than 5,000 jobs.

“The Fresh Food Financing Initiative is a marriage between public health and economic development,” says Yael Lehmann, executive director of the Food Trust whose Supermarket Campaign has been leading the initiative. “Two-thirds of the projects have been in small towns and rural areas. It’s not just about building new stores from the ground up, but also saving stores that might have gone dark and expanding or upgrading others.”

That flexibility has been the key to the program’s success. FFFI works with everything from large, full-service supermarkets to small corner stores. In addition to providing financial assistance, it shows owners how strengthening their produce offerings and other healthy foods will be good for the community and good for business.

In an era of high unemployment, grocery stores also provide job training and entry-level opportunities. “They’re one of the few companies where you can get a job, even if you’ve never worked in a supermarket before. There’s also room for professional advancement,” notes Lehmann.

The total investment to date in FFFI is $30 million in state funding and $90 million in three-to-one matching funding from commercial banks, private foundations and federal tax credits. Now, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the process that led to the FFFI model is being replicated in 11 other states.

In each state the campaign uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping, a computerized process that translates data into visual form, to create a compelling graphic picture of the areas with greatest need. Each state then forms a task force—composed of elected officials, community leaders, public health and economic development advocates, and industry representatives—to begin planning their grantmaking strategy.

In Ambridge, the need for affordable food is clear. During Shop & Save’s latest two-day sale timed to the monthly release of federal food assistance, “sixty-five percent of transactions were paid with food stamps,” Safran reports soberly.

“But people love coming here,” he adds, brightening. “Hardly a week goes by without customers thanking me for the changes in the store.”