With what will be New Brunswick’s newest supermarket as a backdrop, state officials and business leaders today announced an expanded program to spur and finance the development of grocery stores in New Jersey’s most underserved regions.
The New Jersey Food Access Initiative, funded in large part by $12 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, seeks to drastically increase access to affordable fresh food across the state, those involved with the program said. The fund will emphasize growth in 10 cities, including New Brunswick, where the state has pushed redevelopment in recent years.
The food initiative offers financing tools, such as grants and low-cost loans, while lending government support to prospective operators in areas like so-called food deserts, said Don Hinkle-Brown, president and CEO of an investment group called The Reinvestment Fund. The Philadelphia-based organization, which manages the initiative, has spent more than seven years overseeing a similar fund in Pennsylvania and consulting on programs in other states.
“Sometimes, you just plain need a carrot to get an entrepreneur to pay attention to an opportunity that’s a little harder for them to understand,” Hinkle-Brown said. “If their model is a middle-income clientele in a suburban context, it might take a grant to focus their attention on doing things a slightly different way.”
Hinkle-Brown was among those scheduled to be on hand today for the announcement at the site of Fresh Grocer, which will be New Brunswick’s first new full-service supermarket in two decades when it opens in October. The store is part of the New Brunswick Wellness Plaza, a project spearheaded by the New Brunswick Development Corp. that will be part of the new Transit Village development.
In the Pennsylvania program, the Reinvestment Fund leveraged $30 million in state funding to generate $120 million in financing, Hinkle-Brown said. The program financed more than 90 supermarkets and “food access businesses,” generating some 5,000 jobs from late 2004 to 2010.
The new businesses ranged from 900 to 70,000 square feet, including everything from mobile grocers, farmers markets and large ShopRite stores, Hinkle-Brown said. He likened places like Newark, Camden, Trenton and Vineland to many of the small and midsized cities in Pennsylvania that needed a similar solution.
Today’s announcement marked a major expansion of an effort first launched in 2009 by the state Economic Development Authority, which seeded the fund with $3 million, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said. Hinkle-Brown said the program was only able to offer loans before, but the new investment by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation allows it to now provide grants “and have a dollar amount that makes us relevant to bigger projects.”
Marco Navarro, who oversees grant making for the foundation, said the effort aligns with its mission to reverse the national rise in childhood obesity. It’s what prompted the foundation to join the New Jersey Food Marketing Task Force, a group of stakeholders that crafted the state’s revamped plan over the past year.
“Basically the question was, ‘What’s it going to take to attract supermarkets to low-income areas?'” Navarro said. “We know that there’s pent-up demand for these services, but there are concerns, whether it’s … land assembly, help with training employees, financing and an expedited permitting process.”
State officials rolled out the program in conjunction with a new report that contains policy recommendations for supermarket development in the state. They include expediting permits and licenses in high-need areas, creating a one-stop shop for supermarket operators to connect with state agencies and leveraging existing economic development programs to help with the food initiative.
The food initiative will emphasize development in Atlantic City, Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Newark, New Brunswick, Paterson, Trenton and Vineland.