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Fighting against food deserts; Wendell Pierce talks about his New Orleans grocery stores

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 14, 2012 - Actor and activist Wendell Pierce remembers, as a boy, hearing the sound of the produce wagon coming down his street in Pontchartrain Park, a neighborhood in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans that he wistfully calls a bucolic “black Mayberry.”

“It was the first place African Americans could purchase houses in segregated New Orleans after World War II, and it became an incubator for talent,” says the star of HBO's acclaimed series “The Wire” and “Treme,” who grew up with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. “Out of something ugly, we created something beautiful.”

Hurricane Katrina wiped it out. And when people returned and started to rebuild Pontchartrain Park and the other deluged areas of that vibrant and mysterious city, they discovered that their underwater neighborhoods had turned into deserts – food deserts – because the big-chain groceries did not return with them.

Pierce, who will be the keynote speaker Saturday at the Missouri History Museum's two-day Food Summit, stepped up.

With partners including boyhood pals Rocky Arceneaux, CEO of St. Louis-based Alliance Management Group, and Troy Henry, Pierce started Sterling Farms to bring quality food to neighborhoods ignored by American business.

“It's the food justice movement and the food access movement that is actually at the forefront of the real social justice movement of the 21st century, which is economic development,” Pierce said Wednesday by phone during a break from filming an episode of USA Network's “Suits” in Toronto.

Pierce has endeared himself to fans through his roles as Detective Bunk Moreland in “The Wire” and trombone player Antoine Batiste in “Treme,” roles he says he felt blessed to play. The burly actor became an activist when he was asked to help after Katrina by residents of Pontchartrain Park. Dismayed by the slow pace of the city's recovery, Pierce formed Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corp. to help build homes.

“I just felt that, coming from my world, we didn't need another celebrity restaurant, we didn't need another celebrity tennis shoe,” he says. “What we need are for people who have the good fortune that I may have had to realize that it's a call to service, and there but for the grace of God go I.”

That Pierce's commitment to opening groceries has been seen as activism says volumes about the relationship between consumers and corporations today. Pierce says he and his partners “are not reinventing the wheel.” They simply are offering people “what they need and what they deserve,” promising to return customer loyalty “with world class customer service.”

Arceneaux says that when he and other friends went into sports, Pierce went to a different high school to concentrate on the arts. “We all knew he would become something special,” Arceneaux says.

Pierce's conversion from artist to activist began after Katrina, when the national media ran stories about celebrities, including Pierce, staying or leaving New Orleans. Pierce also was interviewed by director Spike Lee for his 2006 Emmy-winning documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” which was about what wasn't being done in New Orleans, Arceneaux says.

“From that point on, Wendell said, 'You know what? It's obvious that if we're going to make a difference here, we're going to have to do it ourselves,' ” Arceneaux recalls.

Pierce, 48, says he was inspired in part by first lady Michelle Obama's efforts to promote healthy eating and access to quality food. New Orleans had become a huge food desert – an area in which it can take a person a half hour or more to reach a decent grocery store.

“People in those communities have shown loyalty to different groceries and loyalty to different brands and, in return, those American enterprises have stayed clear of those neighborhoods and haven't reciprocated that loyalty,” he says.

Where people saw activism, Pierce at first saw only a small-business man opening a store.

“All of a sudden, the simple act of opening a new grocery chain was an act of food justice because so many underserved communities don't have access to decent quality product, or only have access to fast food choices, and people will eat what they have access to,” he says.

“People started to see it as an act of liberation. When the food summit came together in St. Louis, they asked me to come talk about why I did this and how it can impact communities around the country and in St. Louis. I'm looking forward to coming and sharing some of the ideas that I have, and sharing with other people who have attempted to attack this problem in their neighborhoods.”

Pierce and his Sterling Farms partners decided to take the risk “to do well and do good,” realizing that these neighborhoods are an untapped source of revenue as well as an economic engine waiting to be fired up. Two convenience stores called Sterling Express have opened, with a third on the way. The first full-service Sterling Farms grocery is under construction in Marrero, a close New Orleans suburb, and will create 70 to 100 jobs for the neighborhood.

Sterling Farms promoted the store in Marrero with the first of what will become monthly community events. With the Arena Football League, Pierce and partners gave away 500 bags of groceries in the neighborhood where the first store will open this fall. Later, a panel of store neighbors and employees will hold crawfish boils and sell plates to help needy people in the area. The store will offer cooking demonstrations. And, perhaps most importantly, a Sterling Shuttle will give folks a ride home from the store.

Pierce also plans to have a Sterling Farms Mobile Market – a reprovisioned bus updating the old food vendor's cart – bringing healthy food and produce into food desert neighborhoods.

Arceneaux, who calls his childhood friend “Wop” after the shout Pierce would make shooting jump shots as a kid, says they hope to bring the Sterling Farms model to St. Louis and the rest of the country.

“We had a lot of discussions when we were having our Sterling Farms meetings, that hopefully we can get this project going and take the model and bring to other cities,” says Arceneaux, whose clients have included former Rams star Marshal Faulk, rapper Nelly and actor/comic Cedric the Entertainer. “And St. Louis would definitely be on the radar because I've been here 20 years. So if we can bring that same model from New Orleans to St. Louis, you can believe we would definitely do it.”

Pierce is asked what his characters, the homicide cop Bunk and the musician Antoine, would think about his plans. He laughs.

“Antoine wants to know, 'Can I come play in the store?' Right? 'Can I come and get a gig while your man is cookin'?'

“And Bunk is saying, 'No more bodies.' Absolutely right. 'This is our neighborhood. This is why I became a police officer.' Because it was always about families.

“And that's what Sterling Farms is about. The people who are going to come to that store, the meeting place that it's going to be, the marketplace that it's going to be, that's our neighborhood. That's what defines our neighborhood, and neighborhoods across the country. And I know that, and I want to build something that we all can be proud of.”

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