Originally written by Alfred Lubrano and published by The Philadelphia Inquirer on 09/25/2023.
The Community Grocer, expected to open in Cobbs Creek in 10 months, is a creative disruption of the status quo — with a side of potatoes.
Recent University of Pennsylvania graduates Alex Imbot, 25, and Eli Moraru, 23, will be (legally) skirting federal rules that guide food stamps (now called SNAP, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to present healthy, hot food in a nonprofit corner store.
“This is important,” said Cobbs Creek resident Bashir Gooden, 56 and unemployed. “Most corner stores sell processed foods. This’ll be different. I applaud it.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture rules stipulate that hot food can’t be purchased with SNAP benefits, which are conveyed through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. Rotisserie chicken and prepared deli foods are also off limits.
As a result, said Imbot, “Kids can buy Skittles for breakfast, but not scrambled eggs.”
At the Community Grocer (TCG), Imbot and Moraru will create a grocery with the usual staples.
But the store will also be selling the raw ingredients of portioned-out meals in kits, like chicken with potatoes and vegetables. After the customer buys the uncooked food with their SNAP benefits, they will leave the grocery and walk to the rear of the building, into a separate shop that contains a kitchen.
The customer will hand over the meal kit to a worker, who will, in turn, give them a recently cooked version of the raw meal at no charge. The uncooked ingredients will then made into another meal, for another customer.
“This is a new one, isn’t it?” said Charles Reeves, executive director of Resident Action Committee II (RAC2), a Grays Ferry education and nonviolence nonprofit for which Imbot and Moraru volunteered for more than four years. “These guys are excited about it. And I know it can work.”
Imbot and Moraru grew up in Washington, three blocks from one another, but they never met until they were at Penn.
At school, the two recognized they thought alike. “We were college students dedicated to creating a world we wanted to be part of,” Imbot said.
They began working as volunteers for Reeves.
“When you come into an African American community and you’re white, it’s not easy,” Reeves said. “But Alex and Eli became part of the fabric, taking kids on trips, refereeing games. They’re special, caring young men. They want to save lives.”
At RAC2, the two helped haul boxes of food from the USDA being delivered for distribution in the community. But many of the neighbors, Imbot said, didn’t have proper kitchens to cook in.
And throughout the neighborhood, lots of unhealthy foods were still bought at corner stores. So, the D.C. duo decided to reinvent the form.
They presented their TCG idea to Penn, which rewarded Moraru with the President’s Sustainability Prize of $100,000, plus $50,000 in living expenses in 2022. Imbot graduated in 2020 with a degree in environmental management and sustainability; Moraru graduated in 2021 with a degree in political science.
“We’re challenging the system as well as creating a retail experience,” Imbot said. Pointing to architectural plans for the grocery, he added, “This is a protest right in front you.”
Still, problems developed. The men were unable to find a suitable building in Grays Ferry. They searched Cobbs Creek, and lighted on a 1920s-vintage, two-story building on South 60th Street last May.
But how to augment the $100,000 prize to pay the needed $220,000 to buy the building?
“We started cold-emailing people,” Moraru said.
The M&T Bank Charitable Foundation liked the idea enough to donate $300,000.
But would there be trouble circumventing SNAP regulations? The pair cold-emailed the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School to find out.
“They said our model was legal, and that it’s never been done before,” Moraru added.
Imbot and Moraru solicited local attorneys and got enthusiastic responses and free legal help. Similarly, architect Richard Stokes is donating his firm’s talents to designing TCG, including a second-floor community room. “An architect chooses clients carefully,” Stokes said. “But with these guys, I said right away, ‘I’m in.’”
The TCG cofounders knew nothing about cooking, so they sent an Instagram message asking help from local chef Aziza Young.
“I immediately said, ‘Yes,’” said Young, who works as a personal chef to local professional athletes. “I’ll create their menu as their food director.”
Young said the TCG pair has made a point of meeting neighbors, learning their names, playing football with the kids.
“When new stores pop-up, owners don’t bother to learn the community,” Young said. “But these guys want to be part of the neighborhood.”
Indeed, Imbot and Young have knocked on doors, attended street fairs, and spoken at churches to ask people what kinds of food they’d like.
“These outside people are building community,” said Lamont Gordon, a maintenance worker from the area. “Somebody cares about us. I feel blessed.”