A small town outside Pittsburgh is getting a new, unusual grocery shopping option. Denise Marte is opening a store that will sell dented cans, bent boxes, and expired packages of food and other necessities at cut-rate prices in Rural Valley, PA.
Marte Mart is the latest entrant into a business category known as food salvage stores. The stores buy damaged goods that traditional retailers refuse, and they are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration like any other food provider. With prices of staple foods rising and the slow recovery from the recession leaving food budgets tight for millions, the stores have found success in other parts of the country, and Marte’s will bring the idea to Armstrong County.
The Pittsburgh-area county has a median household income of about $43,000, which is about one fifth below both the state and national medians. Its poverty rate of 15.2 percent is below the national figure but high for Pennsylvania, which reports a statewide poverty rate of 13.7 percent in the most recent Census data.
Armstrong has less of a hunger problem than you might expect given those economic statistics, however. One county resident in every eight lived in a food-insecure household, meaning that they cannot consistently provide adequate nutrition for everyone at the table throughout the year. The rate is closer to one in seven for Pennsylvania as whole and one in six nationwide, according to Feeding America.
The county of 68,000 had an estimated 10,700 food stamps recipients as of a year ago, and another 7,175 residents eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) but not receiving the benefit, according to a local food charity network. Armstrong’s overall SNAP participation rate of about 60 percent is lower than the nationwide rate of about 75 percent reported in fiscal year 2010 (which is the most recent data available), but well above the participation rates that were typical prior to the Great Recession. The program is highly effective at keeping poor families from going hungry, but even with the surge in participation in recent years it still fails to reach well over 10 million eligible Americans.
Places like Armstrong County where poverty is more common than national statistics would indicate tend to attract the type of store Marte is opening this week in Rural Valley. Food salvage stores are most common in the southeast and the west and tend to correlate with income levels, according to market research firm IBIS World, which found 386 such stores nationwide in 2012. Consumers spent a total of $4 billion at salvage grocers that year, the company writes, and the industry “has grown quickly over the past five years.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, and America’s neediest families are indeed innovative about staying fed. The most recent national survey of food charity providers and recipients by Feeding America found that 56 percent of food charity clients resorted to eating expired food during the past year. About a third said they had pawned property to buy groceries.
With one in six food charity organizations nationwide fearing they will soon have to close, such households are likely to become even more reliable customers for food salvage stores.