Corner store revolution

With a 2022 President’s Sustainability Prize, Eli Moraru will take raw ingredients payable with EBT and turn them into healthy meals while providing nutritional education resources.

Eli Moraru, Charles Reeves, and Alex Imbot sit on Reeves' front porch in South Philadelphia
Eli Moraru (left) and Alexandre Imbot (right) have been working with community activist Charles Reeves (center) for two years. Their project, The Community Grocer, hopes to make nutrition accessible for all residents of Reeves’ South Philadelphia neighborhood.

“Violence,” says Charles Reeves Jr., looking out from his front porch onto Patton Street, “It’s a problem that we deal with every day.” Reeves should know. He and his wife, Tammy, were born and raised in this neighborhood, Grays Ferry in southwest Philadelphia. Together, they have eight children and 18 grandchildren and run a community nonprofit, Resident Action Committee II.

“It’s a lot of different factors that feed the violence,” Reeves says. There’s a lack of money, and the education’s not great, he says. “We might even think breathing the air has affected it; we don’t know.”

Amid the unknowable, says 2022 President’s Sustainability Prize winner Eli Moraru, one solution stands out: food. People are hungry, and there’s only so much that food stamps can buy.

“There’s, what, four corner stores? And there’s chips, soda, cans of peas. And that’s all you can spend it on,” says Moraru, whose relationship with the neighborhood began two years ago, while walking the block to register voters. “You ask the kids, ‘What did you eat today?’ ‘Oh, I had a Hot Pocket for dinner. And I had Doritos and an Arizona Tea for lunch.’ And these are kids who were playing basketball, you know, five hours a day in the heat, in the cold, in the weather.”

Moraru, who graduated in December 2021 as a political science major with a minor in survey research and data analytics, had a question: “How can we turn food stamps into true nutrition?”

The result was The Community Grocer (TCG). Together with his business partner, Alexandre Imbot, a 2020 Penn graduate who majored in environmental studies with a concentration in sustainability and environmental management, Moraru will work with Tammy and Charles Reeves to create a setup where customers can purchase pre-portioned, fresh ingredients and then take them to a separately owned, separately licensed community kitchen run by the Reeves’ grassroots nonprofit, where the meal will be prepared.

“Moraru and Imbot demonstrate Penn’s commitment to leadership through service,” says Interim President Wendell Pritchett. “Their project will implement an innovative business model to answer the urgent need for health equity and food access at both the local and national level.”

The Community Grocer presents a “well-rounded, practical, scalable solution” to a problem that exists in every city, says Akira Drake Rodríguez, assistant professor in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design’s city and regional planning program who serves as the project’s faculty mentor. “You can’t use your food subsidies to get the food that you really need.”

While there is a grocery store in Grays Ferry, Tasker-Morris residents need a car to get there. “The way the neighborhood is laid out, it’s disconnected from the city,” functioning as a food desert, Rodríguez says. The only food source in the neighborhood is a Chinese takeout place, which recently changed hands in a private sale, Moraru says.

Tammy Reeves, Eli Moraru, Charles Reeves, and Alexandre Imbot stand at the corner of a brick building. A yellow sign reads: Happy Dragon Inn Chinese & American food to take out.
From left to right, Tammy Reeves, Eli Moraru, Charles Reeves, and Alexandre Imbot stand in front of the now-shuttered Happy Dragon Inn Chinese & American food takeout restaurant. The building was once a corner store owned by Charles Reeves’ father.

Standing at the now-vacant, corner-store-turned-takeout spot, Moraru and Imbot are at a crossroads. Behind them is the expressway. To the left, facing north, is the new Penn Medicine Pavilion. To the south lies the old refinery, which, before it exploded in 2020, spread across 13,000 acres of Sunoco-owned wasteland of flames and towers of smoke.

Grays Ferry was boxed in. “You have the hospital treating people and then the refinery that’s poisoning people,” Imbot says. “And you got right here; everyone’s stuck in between.”

Imbot first met the Tammy and Charles Reeves the summer after the refinery erupted, in 2019. He enrolled in a Penn Program in Environmental Humanities class and was paired with Tammy Reeves, when the two worked with the community to create walking and digital tours in a project called Futures Beyond Refining.

“The first two years of our friendship and work with Charles were about understanding what happened with the refinery, moving past the slow violence inflicted on the neighbors so we can build a cleaner future while make sure that everyone has access to their core resources,” Imbot says.

Imbot got Moraru involved. Both members of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, they discovered they grew up within blocks of each other and went to rival high schools in Washington, D.C. Soon, Imbot and Moraru were helping Charles Reeves with job fairs and attending baseball games.

“They just fit right in,” says Reeves. “We joined together, and along the way we helped each other learn different things every day.”

Moraru and Imbot spent a year during the pandemic handing out boxes of food with the Share Food Program. They discovered that the random, raw ingredients—chicken, yogurt, potatoes—weren’t in demand because people didn’t have the resources to transform those into a hot meal. They were too old, too young, too busy, or their kitchens didn’t work.

Eli Moraru, Alex Imbot, and Tammy Reeves stand at corner in front of a nursing home.
Moraru, Imbot, and Reeves stand at the corner where they passed out Share food boxes during the pandemic. Their boxes weren’t in demand because people didn’t have the resources to transform raw ingredients into a hot meal. 

“If this is the way the government is approaching how we can feed people,” Imbot says, “it’s just not working.”

The Tasker-Morris area functions as a food desert. According to USDA data, approximately17 million Americans live in food deserts, without convenient grocery store access. Even a grocery store is not a perfect solution, says Moraru.

“What’s a kid going do with raw chicken and raw vegetables and they don’t know how to cook?” Moraru asks. “So how can we turn food stamps into true nutrition?”

With their model approved by the Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic, The Community Grocer will run the market selling meal kits payable by Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), while the Resident Action Committee II will run a separate community kitchen that cooks and serves hot meals while providing resources and education to the neighborhood.

“As a person who actually grew up using food stamps,” Reeves says, “his idea is great. If I can get some good fresh, cooked food for the same price as chips, Chinese food, you know what I mean? It’s going to work.”

During the pandemic, people in the neighborhood had enough EBT benefits, but there were only so many places to use them, Moraru says. This isn’t unique to Tasker-Morris; nationwide, 45% of food stamps are spent on non-perishable, pre-packaged foods like the chips and soda sold in corner stores. The Community Grocer’s model is scalable and sustainable, Rodríguez says.

“Food stamps [are] just not going to go anywhere; [they’re] going to be here for a long time,” Reeves says. “Food stamps have got to evolve. And this is the evolution.” He looks down the street, squinting in the sun. “This could blow up into something really nice.”