Supermarket Blackout

The lack of major food retailers is devastating African American communities. It's time to use your dollars to fill the gap.

surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of African Americans work as cashiers. And this means the employees with the real decision-making power-those who determine pay rates, implement hiring practices, choose vendors, disperse shelf space and select reinvestment activities-are not African American.

And what impact do the missing supermarkets have on the overall development of African American communities? A substantial one. Supermarkets participate in communities out of altruism as well as to build business. According to FMI, participating in community relations projects enables stores to win recognition and customer loyalty. For residents, supermarket involvement means a wide array of community programs will receive the critical funding they need to survive. The top recipients of supermarket contributions-food banks, local community group partnerships, special events, educational programs and youth groups-help to strengthen the most vital aspects of the community. Since major supermarket chains continue to shun African American communities, these pivotal programs don’t receive their fair share of contributions-and the amount of money lost is sizable. According to FMI’s 1998 Community Relations Activities & the Supermarket Industry report, supermarkets typically earmark $25,000 annually for community-related projects. And financial support varies with size. For example, single-supermarket owners typically set aside $9,000 per year for community investment activities, while companies with at least 50 stores allocate more than $769,000. Most African American community-based organizations don’t have access to these large sums simply because most major supermarket chains fail to serve their communities.

Although the FMI study indicates that supermarkets are generally increasing their support of community projects, it also says these establishments feel they are receiving too many requests-as many as 200 annually. Many have started implementing guidelines restricting the types of community programs that qualify for support. These specific changes surrounding philanthropic contributions are expected to further adversely impact African American communities, since more retailers are allocating funds and decision-making power to local store managers.

"If the managers in your local supermarkets aren’t African American, they don’t share the same interests as the community," explains Greg Calhoun, president of Calhoun Enterprises (No. 28 on the be industrial/service 100 list) in Montgomery, Alabama. Calhoun says the lack of African American managers has a lot to do with the lack of support black communities receive from supermarkets. "[White managers] don’t understand the importance of certain community efforts and they don’t care," he adds.

The irony of this scenario is that mainstream supermarkets only stand to benefit by entering African American communities. The New America Marketbasket: Window on the Multicultural Growth Market, a 1998 study by New American Strategies Group with DemoGraph Corp., found multicultural spending increased by 17.8% in only three years. The Census Bureau projects that America’s nonwhite population will grow from 27% in 1996 to 47% by 2050. African Americans, along with other minorities, are expected to make up 80% of the work force over the next decade.

A large chunk of African American dollars go to grocery items. During 1997, blacks spent $44.6 billion

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