A refugee-run grocery story has revitalized a Pennsylvania food desert like never before
Erie, Pennsylvania, has a Wegman's and a few other grocery stores, yet the city of roughly 100,000 residents still contains seven food deserts, locations residents don't have reasonable access to healthy, affordable food. But one refugee-run grocery story is reversing that trend.
Located in the heart of Erie in a 4,000-square-foot space that was previously inhabited by a music store, U.K. Supermarket opened in 2013 and has been selling more affordable vegetables, lentils and other foods. After living in refugee camps in Nepal for most of his life, the store's founder, Pradip Upreti, moved to Erie in 2009 at age 20.
"Being a refugee and an immigrant, my family needed special food, and the refugee population was going up and there were limited markets [in Erie,]" Upreti said in an interview, noting that many residents would drive hours to Buffalo, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to purchase cooking ingredients.
Increasing nutritious options in a food desert
While the term "food desert" used to describe low-income areas without access to nutritious foods, food activists today typically refer to these areas as "food swamps," because they are so often flooded with advertising or access to unhealthy food.
Below is a map of Erie that shows where UK Supermarket is located in relation to the seven food deserts/swamps (green) and areas inhabited by low-income residents that don't have access to cars (yellow), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.
Upreti opened UK Supermarket in April 2013, but it wasn't until six months later that he quit his job at an electronics manufacturing company to pursue his business full-time.
The timing was right — a large number of Erie residents are immigrants and refugees, Upreti noted, explaining he serves roughly 15,000 people in Erie. Roughly 20,000 residents are immigrants, and 10,000 of those are refugees, according to the Washington Times. Erie's total population is just under 100,000 residents, according to GoErie.com, meaning that immigrants make up roughly 15 to 20% of its population. The city is a large resettlement destination, GoErie.com noted.
Shoppers are so happy when they discover UK Supermarket, Upreti said. "Our prices are really good," he noted, explaining that the market saves people money on groceries and gas and travel time because they don't need to drive to other cities to get groceries.
In Erie, roughly 20 refugee-run stores have opened in the same neighborhood of UK Supermarket within the last decade, Public Radio International noted. Other stores carry specialty items like spices or fish and meats.
"[UK Supermarket] helps a lot because you can't find stuff like this in Walmart or K-Mart or wherever people shop," Samantha Dhunge, a customer, told PRI.
"Right now we're selling to more than 10 different ethnic groups," Upreti said, explaining he would have never succeeded without input from his customers who tell him what products they need. He estimates that roughly 60% of his first customers were fellow refugees.
The supermarket now serves Arab, Indian, Nepalese, Burmese and Vietnamese communities, he said. UK Supermarket sells a wide variety of Indian vegetables that are not popular among Americans, but are still grown in the U.S.
"As long as you keep walking, you'll get to your destination." — Pradip Upreti, entrepreneur
Did Upreti's childhood in the refugee camps in Nepal help him become the entrepreneur he is today? "It did, in a sense," he said. "I learned to struggle. I learned to work hard. I saw good days and many bad days." When he first started the supermarket, he didn't pay himself for a year and a half. Upreti's advice to his former self: "Start small; be patient. As long as you keep walking, you'll get to your destination."
While the dark, leafy greens that line the fridges at UK Supermarket might be unfamiliar to some Americans, how they made their way to the plates of Eerie residents is the epitome of the American dream.