Filling Houston's Food Gaps

For most Houstonians it’s easy to hop in a car and drive down the road to a Kroger, H-E-B, or Fiesta. But it’s not so simple for people living in some low-income areas with few transportation options. Here shopping for food could mean perusing the menu at Taco Bell. That’s because there’s a marked absence of supermarkets. Gracie Cavnar is the CEO of the Recipe for Success Foundation, a local non-profit that teaches children about nutrition.

“What happens is a plethora of fast-food restaurants have sprung up to serve that community. So now because it’s cheap and close, they feed their kids fast food.”

There are fewer grocery stores per capita in Texas than in any other state. That means there’s less access to fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer healthy choices. The Houston Health Department recently started holding monthly farmers markets in a few of Houston’s food deserts to bring affordable produce to the community. But when the sun sets and the farmers leave, the community has to wait a month before the market returns again. What these areas need are fixed grocery stores, says the city’s sustainability director Laura Spanjian.

“We want to try to figure out, what are the barriers to supermarkets coming into some of these areas. And the city then will try to work to address those barriers.”

Spanjian says the city is brainstorming ways to lure grocery stores into low-income food deserts. The market is generally considered risky.

“Can we incentivize supermarket owners and retailers to come into an area? Can we figure out a way to find land for them? Or can we find existing structures that they can renovate and turn into a supermarket? So we’re going to be looking at the gamut to try to really encourage supermarket owners to come into these neighborhoods.”

City Council Member Stephen Costello is working on the project. He says the city hopes to have one supermarket up and running in the next 12 to 18 months, though he’s not sure where it will go yet. He says once a developer is recruited the city will put forward possible incentives, like reimbursing some of the costs of building the store for example.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a signature mega store. It could be a relatively small grocery store, but provides all of the groceries that you would need, which would be meat, produce, regular staples.”

Costello says the key is coming up with the right size grocery store to serve the community while ensuring the store still turns a profit.

“Some of the stores require a number of households to support the economic model of a grocery store. So that will dictate the size of the grocery store, depending upon how many households are in and around the area.”

Jay Crossley is from Houston Tomorrow, a local non-profit. He’s encouraged by the city’s eagerness to tackle the food desert problem. He hopes officials will take a holistic approach though and focus not only on supermarkets but on planting more community gardens and establishing food co-ops.

“Every neighborhood should have fresh produce in its neighborhood, so that every Houstonian can walk to get fresh produce and walk back to the house and cook it.”

The city’s initiative is a small step in that direction.

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