Food Deserts Still Causing Problems In Houston's Low-Income Neighborhoods

Within the next year or so, three big-box grocery stores are expected to open within just a couple of miles of downtown. HEB, Kroger and Wal-Mart stores will soon serve the Montrose area and the Washington Avenue Corridor. But those stores will do nothing to fix what has become a serious problem here — food deserts.

The concept of a food desert is pretty simple. It’s a neighborhood that has limited access to healthy, affordable foods. And there are plenty of food deserts in Houston: Sunnyside, Independence Heights, Kashmere and the Third and Fifth Wards
are just a few of them.

Studies have shown many residents end up buying expensive, unhealthy food at convenience stores instead. Porfirio Villarreal is with the city’s health department.

“Some of the areas considered food deserts really may have one grocery store in one end of the neighborhood and then you have whole swaths of land, communities that don’t have any access to any fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s really hard
for them to have a healthy lifestyle.” 

Houston knows it has a problem and is actually trying to do something about it. It hopes to convince brand-name grocers to take a chance in lower-income areas. Councilman Stephen Costello has been outspoken about the problem of food deserts in Houston.

“It’s a combination of solving a public health issue as well as an economic development issue. I’ve always felt that grocers are the cornerstone of a neighborhood and if you can get a grocery store in an area, you can get the satellite businesses associated with a grocery store. And it also creates jobs for the young kids. It creates full and part-time jobs for kids in the neighborhood.”

He says he understands why some grocers are reluctant to invest in low income areas.

“We can’t dictate where they go, but we can offer some incentives to entice them to go into specific areas. And I firmly believe as we reach out to the business community and try to get economic development in underserved areas, I think we’ll be successful over time, but it’s just going to take us a little time.”   

Some grocers are already tackling the problem. HEB has opened several Joe V’s stores in lower income areas, including a new one in Acres Homes. Fiesta has also be a leader in opening stores in low income areas. The Food Trust, a national non-profit, is working with the Cty of Houston to find ways to entice more grocers to invest in low-income areas. A program in Pennsylvania, called “Fresh Food Financing,” has successfully helped some of those companies with store start-up costs.

“The exciting thing about this is we really do believe this is a problem we can solve.”

The Food Trust’s Mariam Manon says Houston could eventually see a similar program.

“There’s a lot of grocers who are very interested in coming to the table and talking about how they can be part of the solution, nd we really do believe that in Houston you have everything that it takes to make this project successful.”

In the meantime, city officials like Stephen Costello and several of his colleagues on city council say they’ll continue to make the elimination of Houston’s food deserts and top priority.