When Actor Wendell Pierce Saw a Food Desert, He Imagined a Solution

Wendell Pierce (right) in a scene with Liev Schreiber on Showtime's series "Ray Donovan." Pierce is combating food deserts by launching a chain of grocery stores. (Photo: Suzanne Tenner/Showtime).

With TV credits including “The Wire” and “The Michael J. Fox Show” and “Ray” and “Horrible Bosses” on the big screen, Wendell Pierce has an impressive resume. He can be currently seen in the Showtime drama “Ray Donovan,” in which he plays parole officer Mr. Keith, not to mention the upcoming CBS reboot of “The Odd Couple.” But when he’s not on camera, Pierce can usually be found in his native New Orleans, home base for his supermarket and convenience store chain, Sterling Farms.

About two and half years ago, Pierce started the company with two partners, Troy Henry and James Hatchett, to fulfill a basic need. “After [Hurricane] Katrina and the flood, I discovered that New Orleans had a lot of ‘food deserts,’ where people have to travel outside their neighborhoods just to get decent food. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, I realized I needed to step up to the plate,” he says.

He had no background in the business, but he chose partners and experienced staff who did, and they worked out the financing over a three-month period. “I had to convince the banks that it was a viable idea. It didn’t take long.” The goal, Pierce says, was “to give people the choice of a decent grocery store. People will eat what they have access to, and if it’s only bad choices, they’re going to make bad choices. You need to give them an alternative and make it affordable. Affordable, fresh healthy food — that’s the key.”

However, Pierce adds, “You can never take customers for granted,” and toward that end he’s instituted promotions like offering shoppers who spend $50 or more a free ride home with their purchases. “That’s been very popular,” he notes. “You have to earn the people’s trust and loyalty.”

Sterling Farms grovery store
Sterling Farms

Sterling Farms is in four New Orleans locations now, with plans to expand to Alexandria, Louisiana, and Atlanta next year. “People have embraced us,” says Pierce. “They’re very appreciative that we’ve come into the neighborhood.”

Pierce, who was at his home in the Pontchartrain Park section of the city when Katrina hit in 2005, saw the devastation firsthand and founded the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corp. to build solar and geothermal-heated homes in the neighborhood. “We have around 40 now,” he says. He’s also on the board of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which is a nonprofit that was started by the Clinton Foundation to eradicate childhood obesity.

He’s dividing his time between shooting “Ray Donovan” in L.A. while filming “The Runner” with Nicolas Cage in New Orleans. Pierce will shoot “The Odd Couple,” in which he plays Oscar Madison’s radio show producer, this fall. This Christmas, he’ll play Martin Luther King’s lieutenant, Hosea Williams, in “Selma.” He leads the life of a busy “journeyman actor,” but takes advantage of its “ebbs and flows” to make the most of his time away from the screen. “The social justice movement of the 21st century is really not about community activism, it’s about business and economic development,” he says. “If things are important enough, you make the time. I make time for it because it’s all important to me.”