Oasis in a Food Desert
Making Fresh Food Available to Urban Poor
By Tim Weldon, CSG Education Policy Analyst
Florence Coleman lives in a desert. Perhaps her neighborhood in Houston isn’t the image most people have of a cracked, crusted, sunbaked region. But make no mistake, it’s still a desert—a food desert.
“We have only one supermarket in our community and it serves tens of thousands of people,” Coleman said. “The people of this community have very limited access to get out of this community because they don’t have cars, a lot of them.
“We have very limited fresh vegetables at our supermarket. We tell them that we want things, but it never happens,” she added. “I have rarely seen fresh broccoli.”
Coleman, a senior citizen, says it would take her two bus rides to get to the next closet supermarket.
“We have a lot of fast food places in the area, which is not a good thing,” she said.
Coleman lives in an area in north Houston known as Kashmere Gardens. Most of the people living there are African-American or Hispanic. That’s not unusual. Disproportionately, people living in food deserts tend to be low income and racial or ethnic minorities.
Every state has food deserts. Many are found in cities, others in rural areas. In general, the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as an area with few or no grocery stores providing access to healthful food choices. That accounts for nearly one-third of everyone in big cities and 10 percent of this country’s rural population—more than 23 million people in all.
When access to fresh fruits and vegetables is scarce, people tend to eat fast food. They buy snacks and other processed foods from convenience stores, which fuels diabetes and obesity. A survey conducted by Healthy Living Matters, a Houston initiative fighting childhood obesity, found more than half the children living in Kashmere Gardens are overweight or obese.
“For folks living in areas where it’s very hard to find quality, healthy foods, their default is going to be what’s available in their immediate environment,” said Yael Lehmann, executive director of The Food Trust, a national nonprofit organization promoting better food access. “And so you’ll have people eating a lot of low-quality food, which can have a very negative impact on their health.”
Houston At-Large Council Member Stephen Costello became involved in food access issues when a 75-year-old woman approached him following a community meeting and said her low-income neighborhood had never had a grocery store.
“I thought that was profound, so I decided to get in my car after the meeting and find out how long it would take me to find the nearest grocery store, and I drove 20 minutes,” he said. “In these areas, most of the people are at the poverty level. Most of them use public transportation. When you think about it, using public transportation might be a half-day event for someone to go to the grocery store and back.”
Some states have responded by creating incentives to develop more supermarkets in food deserts. Large supermarkets generally have lower prices than smaller markets and convenience stores. They offer a larger selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. This promotes healthy eating, which helps fight obesity, prevents many diseases and contributes to childhood health. Supermarkets have the added benefit of spurring job growth.
Pennsylvania has been a leader in providing incentives for supermarkets to locate in food deserts. The state established the Fresh Food Financing Incentive program in 2004 to increase the number of grocery stores in underserved areas in the state. It partners with private organizations to provide one-time grants and loans for the startup of qualified food retail stores. Those startup costs include land acquisition, equipment financing, capital grants for funding gaps, construction and workforce development.
The state committed $30 million in seed money to the fund: private investors from The Reinvestment Fund, an organization investing in community revitalization in the mid-Atlantic region, provided an additional $145 million. By the time the project spent the last of its funds in 2010, the Fresh Food Financing Incentive approved 93 projects providing 400,000 residents with better access to healthful food.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Dwight Evans has been one of his state’s leading proponents of the incentive program. He said helping to fund supermarkets is important not only for the food it puts on people’s tables, but also for the jobs it creates.
“Job development is essential to the growth of a community,” Evans said. “A supermarket can create up to 250 jobs. That’s just the jobs within the supermarket. That’s not talking about the construction. And they tend to be anchors or magnets and they draw other kinds of business development.”
Evans would like to see a national program modeled after Pennsylvania’s initiative.
“I believe we have accomplished what we wanted to accomplish and now it has moved to a market perspective,” he said. “It has gotten the attention of banks and now we’ve gotten the attention where people see there’s gold in those hills. And now investors, developers, grocery store owners are seeing that our case has been made. We have proven that there’s a market for this.”
Some contend if a community can support a supermarket, the free market will take care of it without government prompting.
Lehmann’s response: “We’ve talked to a lot of grocers who say, ‘I’m really interested in expanding my business or opening a new business, but in particular areas the math just doesn’t add up.’ They’re saying, ‘We don’t want ongoing subsidy. If we could get this little bump then the equation starts to add up for us.’”
Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Incentive program is widely viewed as a model that has influenced similar programs in Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York.
In 2009, New York created the Healthy Food and Healthy Communities initiative. It’s a public-private partnership that awards grants and loans for predevelopment costs such as real estate acquisition, construction or rehabilitation and infrastructure to eligible supermarket operators to locate in needy areas.
When the only supermarket in Highland Falls, N.Y., closed in 2011, the town of 5,000 had to negotiate with a town 11 miles away to provide bus service once a week so residents could have access to a grocery store. The New York initiative provided a grant to a couple to open a new 16,000 square foot grocery store with a produce section even larger than the previous supermarket.
Now, this grocery store has become a sort of oasis in, well, the desert.