New Business To fill South Jersey Food Desert City With Groceries And More

BURLINGTON CITY — A new small business will bring a grocery store and more to a major section of Burlington City, which lacks a supermarket and convenient access to healthy, fresh and affordable food.

Planners of the city-approved VILLAGES Community Marketplace said one of its goals is to make urban grocery shopping more accessible and affordable for residents of the New Yorkshire neighborhood and others who live in Burlington City, designated one of the state's 50 food deserts by the Department of Agriculture.

The new venture is a nonprofit project of The Opportunity League, also a city nonprofit and a growing community umbrella organization. To implement the VILLAGES concept the league has collected financial and other support via grants or donations from a dozen companies, agencies and other nonprofits.

The VILLAGES Community Marketplace at York and Federal streets will have a grocery store, a restaurant with sit-down and take-out meals focusing on healthy foods, a juice bar, pop-up shops and a community garden for growing fresh produce, said Seigha I. Omuso, the league executive director,

"We're calling the marketplace a groceraunt because it's a grocery and a restaurant," explained Omuso, a former basketball coach who 12 years ago founded The Opportunity League, also known as the O League.

Another aspect of the marketplace will be a community education program to be offered in a classroom in the rear of the building, which formerly housed a Fresh-To-Go market.

"This is a major milestone for us to be able to come together as a village because it takes a village," Omuso told a crowd of more than 50 who gathered  March 5 for an event announcing the VILLAGES combo businesses and educational classroom.

"VIILLAGES is an initiative driven by residents and community partners to engage and connect the community and to remove obstacles to fresh, affordable food, education and employment."

While the entire city is designated a food desert, the New Yorkshire neighborhood also is a state-designated opportunity zone in need of investments, which are eligible for tax breaks. New Yorkshire also has lower social-economic income levels and more transient residents than other city neighborhoods, according to city officials.

The league recently received a $50,000 donation boost from Amazon, which has a fulfillment center and warehouse complex between Pearl Street and the Delaware River in the city and extending into Burlington Township. 

Renovations to the VILLAGES building are to begin shortly with a fall opening planned.

"We will sell bread, milk, butter, household items like laundry supplies and over-the-counter at very affordable prices," said Shenee Omuso, the O League director of education and career pathways and the executive director's wife.

Amazon presented a check on March 5 at an event formally announcing the new venture. Burlington City Police Chief John Fine attended and state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, promised a matching donation of $5,000.

"We want to thank the Opportunity League, the fantastic Omuso husband and wife team and their partnerships for bringing this to 200 E. Federal Street. None of this would have happened without the work between The Opportunity League, their partners, and city council," said Mayor Barry Conaway, who spoke at the event.

Gregory Keel, site leader of the local Amazon facility, expressed admiration for The Opportunity League’s mission of building strong partnerships and "tackling the plague of food insecurity."

“Amazon believes in working through the community and doing work at the local level ... together (to effect) change and have a positive impact," he said.

Omuso said the league has raised $110,000 so far via grants, donations and has also received in-kind support but is seeking even more funding.

In addition to Amazon, financial supporters of the project include Roma Bank, New Jersey Health Initiatives of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Investors Bank, New Jersey Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, the Smithsonian Institute, Healthy Places by Design and the city police department. 

The O League at 11 West Broad Street offers youth and adult sports, youth entrepreneurship, the STEAM youth program in science, math and art; adult learning, and job skills and placement.

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