Houston Councilmember Stephen Costello is taking me on a driving tour of a Houston food desert.
“We’re going to go in between 610 and Beltway 8 and then. we’ll come up this way aways and what you’re going to see is the absence of a grocery store.”
Tall, lean, wearing a nice suit and dark sunglasses, Costello readily admits he lives in a neighborhood with four grocery stores in close range.
He first learned about food deserts when he was campaigning at the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center.
“We were talking about housing and related type issues and after the meeting was over a resident got up. She said she was about 75 years old and, she said, ‘I grew up in this neighborhood and I’ve lived here all my life.’ And she says, ‘We don’t need more housing. We need a grocery store here.'”
It was the first time Costello ever heard about the issue.
“I consider a grocery store just like I do when you turn on the water tap or flush the toilet, everyone has a grocery store. And so just for grins I decided, okay let me drive from this multi-service center and let me see how far it is for me to find a grocery store.”
Turns out there’s only one in the Sunnyside area, a very small Fiesta, along with convenience stores and fast food joints.
Many of Houston’s food deserts are in areas where the city is infusing large amounts of money for housing development through Hurricane Ike Recovery funds. Costello says they’re trying to convince grocers to build new stores in those neighborhoods by using 380 agreements, which include things like tax abatements, to create incentives for retailers.
“And so we felt that if we’re going to be in these communities, which are predominantly east of I-45 which would be Third Ward, Fifth Ward, Eastside, in our Ike investment, then why we don’t try to dovetail that with some economic development and using a 380 agreement to get our groceries into these food deserts. So we’re trying to come into a neighborhood, touch it once, and then leave. And hopefully then the neighborhood will be self-sustaining.”
On the north side of town, HEB Senior Vice President Armando Perez is showing me around the company’s newest concept store called Joe V’s. It’s specifically designed for food desert communities, a store where you won’t see many extras.
“So the store is actually smaller than a typical supermarket — less real estate that you need to purchase, a smaller building that you need to construct — so all that helps to continue to keep our costs down as well. What we’ve told the consumer is we’re going to get you what you need and we’re going to work to keep all the other expenses out of the business so we can offer you the best prices possible.”
Councilmember Costello says the Joe V’s concepts is just one approach among many to the food desert problem. He’s invited grocers and service providers to a food summit next week to develop ideas.
So maybe one day when he visits Sunnyside, he can take the woman who asked him for a grocery store to one right in her own neighborhood.