A grocery store with a new concept to help low-income people recently opened in Baltimore, Maryland, in a diverse neighborhood that's home to some of the poorest people in the city.
The Salvation Army, a worldwide Protestant charity group, converted one of its warehouses into a full-service grocery store called DMG Foods, stocking it with quality, nutritious food at affordable prices. DMG stands for the group’s motto “doing the most good.”
The Salvation Army is known for its thrift shops and food pantries in the United States.
There used to be other grocery stores in this part of Baltimore, but they all left, creating a vacuum known as a “food desert,” a neighborhood without stores that provide fresh produce and meat.
Making a difference
A number of factors seem to contribute to the lack of supermarkets in poor, inner-city neighborhoods in general, including poverty, crime, security issues and lack of economic development. Some store managers said they had to close because they were not making a profit.
But “having a grocery store in a neighborhood can make a big difference in what people eat,” said Major Gene Hogg, Salvation Army’s central Maryland commander who came up with the idea for the organization’s first grocery market.
“Typically, many low-income people have been raised to buy frozen chicken, and heat it up, or they stop by McDonalds” for fast food, Hogg added. “We want to encourage them to buy good, healthy food they can afford.”
Affordable and close
As in other low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore, most of the residents here do not own a car, and have to take public transportation to get to grocery stores several kilometers away.
JoAnn Weaver likes that she can walk to the DMG store.
“This is the first time I haven’t had to ride more than 4 miles (6 kilometers). I usually go all over the place to shop at the stores,” Weaver said.
She added that she is impressed with the selection and the lower-than-average grocery store prices at DMG, which helps stretch her food budget.
The Rev. Samuel Lupico, a Catholic priest who used to serve in a church in this neighborhood, said he comes weekly to shop. He thinks the supermarket will help people who usually cannot afford to make healthy meals.
Neighborhood resident Aran Keating came to check out the store.
“I just wanted to see what it was like since I shop at Salvation Army for secondhand clothes sometimes,” Keating said. “To see any company moving in that has a charitable mission is a good thing for the neighborhood, and if that mission is to supply food for people for a cheap price, I’m for it,” Keating added.
But since many people in the neighborhood associate the Salvation Army with thrift stores and food distribution for the poor, store manager Jim Farace said some of them are embarrassed to come in or think DMG Foods is second-rate. He’s hoping business will pick up once the word gets out that DMG is a typical grocery store, which has good food at good prices.
Most of the customers are receiving food aid from the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. The store also has a loyalty program, which gives users a free item each month.
“Free chicken, free light bulbs, whatever we have to help them stretch their dollars,” Hogg said.
The store also provides food tastings and free fruit for children. There are meal-planning ideas and a nutritionist on hand as well. The store also hires employees who live in the neighborhood, and teaches them skills that can be used to work at larger chain grocery stores.
Doing the most good
In keeping with the Salvation Army tradition, DMG Foods also delivers meals to homeless shelters.
“We make 150 meals a night, so DMG is a grocery store, yet also has a social service aspect to it," store manager Farace said.
And that reflects the major difference between DMG Foods and other supermarkets.
“Our business model is really to break even,” Major Hogg explained. “If we do better than that, then the proceeds will go to support our local program called Catherine’s Cottage, a home for women who have been rescued from human trafficking.”
Hogg is hopeful that his vision will be successful, and Salvation Army grocery stores will open in other disadvantaged neighborhoods in Baltimore and put in across the United States.