Last week's column took a look at how supermarket operators are increasingly realizing that one good way to escape the overstoring of the suburbs is to seek out new and underserved markets in the nation's inner cities. It's not always easy to assemble a tract of land, or to get various governmental approvals needed to open an inner-city store, nor is it easy to operate an inner-city store once it is opened. But there is profit to be had -- and a big harvest of goodwill to be reaped -- from running inner-city stores.
But apart from all that, there's another dimension to this whole issue: It may be good and profitable to run stores in the inner city, but there are far greater problems in the inner city than supermarket understoring. The problems speak to issues of how to staff such a store and the safety of the store, not to mention far broader mega-issues concerning the whole society.
Here's the nub of the overarching issues: The most recent edition of Arthur Andersen's Retailing Issues Letter pointed out that Owen Butler, former chairman of Procter & Gamble, told an audience that more American children drop out of public high school each day than the number of servicemen lost during the Pearl Harbor assault.
David Hamburg, a nationally recognized authority on child development, was quoted in the same letter to the effect that "we're committing atrocities" on inner-city youth because they have no opportunity, no models of competence and no social support.
"If we cannot bring ourselves to feel compassion for these young people, we must at least recognize that our economy and our society will suffer along with them. Their loss is our loss!"
There's no way the supermarket industry can solve this huge problem, but the National League of Cities and the Food Marketing Institute's Neighborhood Partnership Awards program seeks to recognize food retailers that at least are doing something to ameliorate the situation.
A booklet about the awards, "Cities and Supermarkets: Partners in Progress" lists a number of supermarket companies that, working with local governments, are endeavoring to make a difference. Three listed companies were designated 1995 Award Winners. Here's a little on the 1995 Award Winners, and the programs they have instituted, according to the awards booklet:
· D&W Food Centers and Grand Rapids, Mich., formed a relationship with Palmer Elementary School consisting of a pen-pal program in which store associates and Palmer students swap letters. Every student at the urban school now has a pen pal and several relationships have evolved into successful mentorships. · Wakefern Food Corp., Elizabeth, N.J., and Monmouth County, N.J., have established a supermarket careers training program, the goal of which is to meet vocational-training and educational needs of special education students. Students are trained in a 2,000-square-foot model store in Asbury Park, N.J., that contains fully stocked supermarket departments. Materials are supplied by Wakefern, educational agencies and several food vendors.
· Wegmans Food Markets and Rochester, N.Y., have teamed to form a Work Scholarship Connection program, the goal of which is to graduate at least 50% of at-risk students who participate. Training methods involve part-time jobs and positive role models.
These three 1995 award winners are by no means the only food distribution companies that are giving back something to those in need in their region.
Others cited in the NLC-FMI booklet for having instituted programs intended to help include Big Y Foods, Kroger Co., Cub Foods, Foodland Distributors, Quality Markets, Smart & Final, Pathmark Stores, Tidyman's, Finast and Fleming Cos.
Of course, there are many other supermarket retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers not cited in the booklet that are working quietly, endeavoring to do what they can to make a difference. That's a fact that's often lost. It shouldn't be.