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Food for thought: an actor's new role ... in the grocery store

By Ron Mott, Correspondent, NBC News

NEW ORLEANS -- As a boy, Wendell Pierce dreamed of leaving his hometown one day for the world stage. Today, the veteran actor with global credits has returned on a mission: rebuilding neighborhoods, brick by brick, aisle after aisle.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated this city in 2005, Pierce seized an opportunity to help his childhood neighborhood -- Pontchartrain Park, an historic enclave for middle-class blacks -- get back on its feet. He started the nonprofit Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corp. with a goal of replacing hundreds of flood-ravaged, 1950s-era houses with new homes.

Now, the next item in his recovery recipe is a long-missing ingredient.

Pierce, 50, and his partners are investing big in something seemingly so small: convenient access to a grocery store. They have launched a chain of convenience stores, Sterling Express, and a full-service grocery store, called Sterling Farms, the latter just unveiled in what is often described as a "food desert," a neighborhood where residents must travel more than a mile to a store selling fresh food. According to 2011 data, 19 percent of all Orleans Parish households have no access to a vehicle.

A Sterling Farms employee gives away fresh fruit samples. Food education is an important part of Wendell Pierce's mission.
A Sterling Farms employee gives away fresh fruit samples. Food education is an important part of Wendell Pierce's mission.NBC News

At last count, in the fall of 2012, there were 26 supermarkets in the city -- nearly as many as the 30 that existed prior to Hurricane Katrina. But "it's not about overall count," says Tulane professor Diego Rose, "it's about distribution." In New Orleans, disparities in neighborhood access to grocery stores worsened after Hurricane Katrina. 

“The areas that came back first were wealthier,” Rose said.

In neighborhoods predominantly populated by African-Americans, access was especially limited -- in 2007 these tracts were 71 percent less likely to have access to more than one supermarket.

'We have a right to be here'

To hear Pierce's take on the importance of the neighborhood shopping experience, he's selling more than just bread and milk.

"That's what I hope Sterling Farms is -- that neighborhood grocery store where you see your neighbors, where you build that economic engine within your own community and exercise your right of self-determination," said Pierce, who has starred in the HBO hits "The Wire" and "Treme."

"We have a right to be here. We have a right to live well and come together as a community."

Wendell Pierce welcomes the first customers inside his 25,000 square-foot store.
Wendell Pierce welcomes the first customers inside his 25,000 square-foot store.NBC News

Community drives Pierce's unseverable connection to home. While he maintains residences on both coasts, New Orleans always calls the actor. And he is always keen to answer.

His dad still lives in the small Pontchartrain Park house where Pierce's parents raised their family. His mom passed away in October. Pierce said she would have been pleased to see his grocery store open, all those years after mother and son became Friday night shopping regulars at Schwegmann's, their old neighborhood supermarket.

Mindful of a significant barrier frequently confronted in neighborhoods like Marrero, the New Orleans suburb where the first of several planned grocery stores has opened, Pierce insisted that Sterling Farms provide transportation to customers spending a minimum of $50 who need a ride.

'You can do well and do good'

He also made sure his convenience stores stocked up on apples, oranges and bananas as much as candy, chips and soda.

"I'm a member of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which is trying to end childhood obesity," Pierce said. "I deal with my own issues of weight. So eating healthy is the focus and part of the mission. The two can co-exist. You can do well and do good."

And doing something positive in areas of this city that have shouldered more than a fair share of negative over the years is adding up like the cash registers at Pierce's stores -- landing him warm applause at a recent orientation for some of the five dozen people hired to work at Sterling Farms.

"I want to compete with all of the other negativities that are out there, especially for young people," Pierce said. "Give you an opportunity to see what it's like to interact with folks, to build your own self-esteem, to build your own wealth, to build your own quality of life, to build your own skill set, to give yourself the best opportunity out there in the world."

It is a role that appears tailor-made for Pierce -- an opportunity, he found, too good to pass up.

NBC News producer Leo Juarez contributed to this report.