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Small grocers do their part to eliminate 'food deserts' — but against considerable odds

Western Massachusetts is home to acres of farmland and vegetable stands, as well as many neighborhoods considered “food deserts.”

As food prices go up, government programs are supporting efforts to offer more affordable, healthy food.

The new owners of one longtime grocery store in Chicopee have made it their mission to become a fresh-food resource, but against considerable odds.

One recent afternoon, Samaita Newell, co-owner of Fruit Fair, was slicing cheese at the deli counter, giving one of her staff a few minutes off and exchanging pleasantries with the regular customers.

“How's your day going?” she asked one customer, handing him a pound of Lacey Swiss cheese.

“Good, how’s yours?” he replied.

After her employee returned, Newell walked over to her pride and joy: the produce section.

“So it used to be just one case,” Newell said, “so we would only be able to carry limited fruits and vegetables, which was, you know, top of the line back in 1936.”

That’s when Fruit Fair first opened under its original owner. In 2019, Newell and her husband Jared bought the 6,000 square-foot store (plus an extra 5,000 square feet of storage). At the time, most of the produce inventory was packaged or frozen. They added more long shelves of fruits and vegetables, including from local farms.

“We even have things like fiddleheads,” Newell said, pointing at a long shelf of fresh produce. “We get radishes, we get scallions, we get green leaf, red leaf, asparagus, native corn.”

This area of Chicopee has long been classified by the US government as a low-income, low-access food area, also known as a “food desert,” where it’s hard to find affordable, fresh food.

 A customer peruses the vegetables at Fruit Fair in Chicopee, Massachusetts.
Karen Brown
A customer peruses the vegetables at Fruit Fair in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

The Newells say their goal was to fill that void, while making a living, but they are learning how low the profit margin is.

“We actually have yet to cash in any of our paychecks,” Samaita Newell said. “And we have been working here almost three years.”

Newell didn’t start her career in the grocery business. She emigrated as a college student from India, studying physics and astronomy, which is what her family and culture expected from her. But when she started dating Jared, she said, her family stopped supporting her.

“Being an immigrant and studying physics, I didn't really have like a lot of connections,” she said. “So I had to start somewhere and I started in retail.”

After college, she moved up the ranks of other grocery stores, including Aldi, but feeling stymied as a person of color, she decided it was time to own her own business. Jared had been working for a forestry company. The couple had already bought a few rental properties for income. But they wanted a store.

They bought Fruit Fair for $1.4 million and quickly discovered it would need a lot of investment.

“All of the equipment was falling apart,” Jared Newell said. “More than a quarter of everything was already dated. We had to throw it all out just so that we could have fresh product coming in. The building itself needed and still needs a lot of work. It was just something that we were kind of blindsided with.”

They set about renovating the building so they could turn it into a full-service grocery store. It’s a neighborhood where many people don’t have vehicles to get to more established supermarket chains; the closest is about 2 miles away.

“Driving around, you go to certain places, you find they have a lot of bodegas or a lot of convenience stores, but it's all chips and soda,” said John Waite, who administers a state-funded program called the Massachusetts Food Trust.

Waite’s organization, the Franklin County Community Development Corporation, is in charge of giving out loans and grants to food retailers in western and central Massachusetts. The program came out of a 2012 reporton the need for more equitable access to healthy food.

Waite said one strategy is to recruit large supermarkets like Big Y and Stop & Shop into underserved areas, but those efforts can take years of advocacy.

“So trying to get a smaller store to increase their offering is the other way to go,” he said. “We also think this is a good economic development tool, increase maybe the size of the store or maybe they can hire another person. And they are buying local.”

The Newells say a loan and grant from the Massachusetts Food Trust has helped keep them afloat. But it still hasn’t been easy.

COVID-19 hit just as they were finishing renovations. More recently, jumping retail prices and the supply chain have put even more strain on the business.

Sales are up by 20%, but some costs have tripled. Every week they have to relabel 200 grocery items to keep up with rising prices.

“The same customers are coming in,” Samaita Newell said, “but instead of getting like 20 things, they're probably getting like 15 or 16 and thinking like, ‘Okay, this is a huge price difference. This I will get elsewhere.’”

That means stiff competition from large chains such as Walmart, which can sell groceries at a discount.

The Newells are hoping continued investment will bring those customers back. Fruit Fair recently got a separate state infrastructure grant of half a million dollars, which they say will help upgrade equipment and food displays. They will also buy a handicapped-accessible van so they can more easily give rides home to low-income shoppers.

Meanwhile, John Waite said the Massachusetts Food Trust has made 50 loans to grocers since the program began, but it’s been hard to get the word out

“I think the more success stories we have, the more likely that it'll catch on,” he said.

He said small stores don’t always want to invest in what it takes to provide healthy options, especially during the uncertain times of COVID.

“A lot of these bodegas, they're making money. So why take on $10,000 debt for a new cooler?” he said. “Hopefully that's going to start changing. They need to see the customer base is there.”

Samaita and Jared Newell say they’re in it for the long haul — but it is a long haul. Both in their 30s, they have decided to put off having children while they get the store going. This year they hope to finally pay themselves a salary.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.