Pilot program expanding to serve Cambridge Springs within weeks.
Imagine living 30 miles from the nearest source of fresh food. No popping out to pick up a bag of apples for the kids' lunch tomorrow. No stopping to pick up a salad kit to throw together with dinner. No picking up chicken breast on the way home from work.
If you lived in Tionesta, population not quite 500, in Forest County, just over six months ago, you needed to plan for all of that before making a half-hour one-way trip in any direction to get to a grocery store.
The town's nearest source of fresh food, Farm Fresh Foods, closed in late 2018. After that, there were convenience stores, but nothing that sold anything more nutritious than rolling hot dogs, potato chips and soda.
Then Tionesta Lions Club member Farley Wright put pen to paper.
“I basically sent (Giant Eagle) a concept paper proposing how if online orders were aggregated and delivered to a single location for distribution, it has potential to become an acceptable business model,” Wright said. “I also discussed a little bit with them the plight of American communities being underserviced in favor of investing in areas with a high population density.
“Small communities lose access to health services, grocery stores, drug stores and all sorts of other products and services,” Wright said. “Nobody is doing it intentionally, it's the consequence of doing business in a competitive setting.”
He sent that paper to the right people and phone calls happened and, by July, Giant Eagle on Interchange Road started twice-a-week deliveries an hour-and-a-half south to the center of Tionesta. When the deliveries arrive, volunteers gather to help distribute the grocery orders to 50 to 60 residents.
“The community responded strongly and positively,” said Jannah Jablonowski, spokeswoman for Giant Eagle, based in Pittsburgh. “As more people are made aware of the service and people tell their friends and family, more customers are getting comfortable adopting the program. We expect to see that rise.”
Customers in Tionesta go online to place their orders ahead of the deliveries, which take place between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays. Giant Eagle does not charge a fee for the deliveries.
“We wanted to make this as accessible as possible,” Jablonowski said. “They did not have an easy solution to get groceries. We wanted to do our part, something for the residents and that makes business sense for us and to enrich the lives of people in Tionesta.”
Now Giant Eagle is in talks with Cambridge Springs Active Aging, a senior center affiliated with Crawford County's Area Agency on Aging, to set up a similar service there, said Krista Geer, executive director for Active Aging.
“We're in the planning phases,” Geer said. “They have to put the structure and parameters in place and we have to make sure we have enough volunteers to do it. I'm very confident we will. The community is tremendously supportive.”
She expects grocery deliveries to Cambridge Springs Senior Center, 156 Venango Ave., in early February. The program will be available to anyone in Cambridge Springs.
“Our primary goal is to assist the seniors the community,” Geer said. “But hopefully that helps the entire community.”
Wright, a Tionesta Lions Club member for 20 years, said he asked his club members for help and they jumped at the chance. He said he was also impressed by how quickly Giant Eagle was able to set up the service.
“Once Giant Eagle decided to give it a shot, it became more of a logistic puzzle than anything else,” Wright said. “We were fortunate to have an individual in the community willing to provide us space, and our community is fortunate to have a Lions Club that will support any worthwhile project that benefits our community.
“Giant Eagle's challenge was to determine which store to service us from, what kind of vehicle to use for transport, what operational model should they put the project under (they chose Curbside Service, which was a good fit), and how to staff it. From the initial discussions to implementation in July, the process took less than six months.”
He said he only expects interest in the delivery service to grow.
“It's working out well so far,” he said. “It's difficult in our community to get information out to people because there is no single source of news media everyone uses.
“People also sometimes don't like to change routines and some of the folks use traveling to do their grocery shopping as an opportunity to do other things like eat out.”
Wright said he is just glad people in Tionesta have the option, once again, to get fresh food without spending an hour on the road, difficult for seniors any time and difficult for everyone when winter weather looms.
“From my perspective, the most important thing is they have access to choices,” Wright said. “And that one of those includes an ability to order online and have a local delivery, which is a service people in more populated areas have had for a while and take for granted.”
He's glad to hear the program is expanding into Cambridge Springs.
“That's exactly what I had hoped would happen,” he said. “The model used to bring grocery store access to Tionesta is easily capable of being replicated in other communities facing a similar problem.”
Jennie Geisler can be reached at 870-1885 or by email. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ETNgeisler.
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