food deserts

Jonny Rhodes and Others Fight for Food Equality

Why a celebrated local chef is pivoting and joining a growing movement.

By Timothy Malcolm February 26, 2021 Published in the December 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Jonny Rhodes has had the kind of success a first-time restaurant owner could only dream of having.

In July 2018 he opened Indigo, a 13-seat tasting menu restaurant set in Houston’s Northline neighborhood, which features dishes based on the survival of Black people and Indigenous Americans over centuries of oppression. While serving multiple-course meals, he tells stories about slavery, structural racism, and deep and ongoing American prejudice.

Indigo has been a phenomenon, showing up on national best-new-restaurant lists while winning Rhodes a Rising Star Chef nomination for the 2019 James Beard awards. In late 2019 Time magazine named Indigo one of the world’s 100 greatest places.

At first Rhodes aimed to build on his success, revealing plans for a second restaurant to be set on the side patio of his Berry Road property. By early 2020 his path forward seemed clear. But the Covid-19 pandemic reached Houston in full that spring, and Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered all restaurants to temporarily close by March 17.

While observing the public panics about securing enough groceries to quarantine, he started thinking of people in Eastex/Jensen, Northline, and nearby Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, the modest, low-income homes in the neighborhoods that surrounded his restaurant, Rhodes later told Houstonia.

“What are the Black and brown people who are living in poverty supposed to do? People are talking about coronavirus, but hurricane season is right around the corner? Nah. Not gonna work,” he said. “We have to think logically: How can we protect everyone?”

He had an idea, though. Rhodes shut Indigo’s door on St. Patrick’s Day, and three days later he announced a major pivot: He would transform the restaurant into a pop-up market. One week later the chef said he was renting the former Amigo Food Store on Bennington Street in Eastex/Jensen, turning it into a food market called Broham Fine Foods. Later Rhodes let out that Indigo would permanently close in fall 2021.

Rhodes has planted himself in the center of a recent movement that addresses the overwhelming amount of food insecurity in Houston. He’s trading in meteoric success as a chef for the chance to open a chain of Black-owned grocery stores, and during the Covid-19 pandemic he’s been laser-focused on accomplishing his goal. While he works, others, whether nonprofit organizations or private citizens volunteering their time and money, are finding ways to address one of the city’s most pervasive problems. Together they’re all trying to change conversations about how people get fresh food. 

The idea that populations of Americans could lack access to healthy and fresh food has always existed, though it was more of a nebulous concept until 1990, when Congress enacted the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, which established a baseline for understanding nutrition in America. From that legislation came the U.S. Food Security Measurement Project, providing first in 1995, and annually from thereon, the first survey-based findings indicating the prevalence of fresh food access nationwide.

With that project came the more frequent usage of the term “food insecurity,” defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” In a food-insecure house, residents may have disrupted eating patterns because there’s little or no money and resources for food. Common reasons for this include lack of steady employment, or earnings going toward housing, medication, utilities, or transportation before food.

According to USDA data, Black and Hispanic families are twice as likely as white families to experience food insecurity. Overall, per the USDA, 10.5 percent of U.S. households experienced food insecurity in 2019. That figure was a slight improvement from 2018, when the USDA found that 11.1 percent of houses experienced food insecurity. But the Covid-19 pandemic changed that; researchers at Northeastern University speculated in August that close to 25 percent of American households have experienced food insecurity in 2020.

“People are trying to do the estimates, but easily 20 percent of households are experiencing food insecurity,” says Daphne Hernandez Lee, a professor of developmental psychology specializing in poverty-related food issues at University of Texas Health Center’s Cizik School of Nursing. She adds that the numbers should stay high even beyond the implementation of a coronavirus vaccine. “Unfortunately, it takes some time and natural disasters for people to realize there are people who live paycheck to paycheck, and food is a constant thing to worry about.”

A report during the pandemic by Houston-based nonprofit Children at Risk found that 24 percent of children in Harris County were experiencing food insecurity. Children at Risk used a related indicator called social vulnerability—which is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the potential in a community for negative effects caused by external stressors—to show the communities at highest risk for increased food insecurity during the pandemic. Those areas include Fifth Ward, Independence Heights, Settegast, and Trinity/Houston Gardens.

“Here in Houston, this is a big issue,” says Hernandez. “It’s not just particular to a ward or to a neighborhood; this is prevalent throughout the city.”

Neighborhoods like Settegast and Trinity/Houston Gardens are also within what the USDA calls food deserts. These places, according to the USDA, are low-income census tracts—usually containing a population of between 1,000 and 8,000 people—“with a substantial number or share of residents with low levels of access to retail outlets selling healthy and affordable foods.” In urban areas like Houston, a food desert is determined by the lack of a supermarket within a one-mile radius. In these communities, more common places for food include fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that don’t stock fresh produce daily.

“Where you live determines a lot of things about your life,” says Anissa Cordova, development director of Houston Habitat for Humanity. “If you don’t live in a healthy place, that’s huge, and we’re seeing that during the pandemic. How can you live safe and healthy when you don’t have a healthy home to begin with?”

Nina Mayers helped establish the first community fridges in Houston.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Habitat has been a leader in battling food insecurity, focusing substantial resources since 2014 in one neighborhood, Settegast. The historically Black neighborhood with a growing Hispanic population came to prominence in the mid-20th century as families sought inexpensive housing close to downtown Houston. About 10 miles northeast of Downtown, and bounded by the McCarthy Road Landfill and Ralston Road Landfill to the east and the Union Pacific Rail Yard to the west, Settegast has long been one of Houston’s poorest locations because of a variety of factors, many of which are related to racism-based neglect. For years Settegast had below-average sanitation conditions, a lack of fresh food nearby, and a number of vacant lots.

While building more than 50 homes in Settegast for low-income families over the past six years, Habitat has also worked with residents to identify other areas of need. That led to the creation of a committee that planned a 5,000-square-foot community garden at 7984 Tate St. Reliant donated $30,000 to help pay for buildout, while Lanson B. Jones Landscape Architecture helped design the space. In October 2019 planting of produce such as mustard greens, collard greens, tomatoes, and peppers began. Residents interested in taking some produce can call a number listed at the garden; in the future Habitat hopes to establish a distribution point in the neighborhood, and, further, to pass the garden off to dedicated community members who can facilitate distribution.

“We basically take care of recruitment and registration and tracking of volunteers for that garden,” says Cordova. “Part of the community engagement we’re trying to do is find younger people in the neighborhood who can take it on.”

The Settegast site is one of the dozens of community gardens across the Houston area. Urban Harvest oversees a program including 140 affiliate gardens run either by members of the public or by schools; 65 of those gardens are in food deserts.

Another way folks are combating food insecurity is by establishing community refrigerators. The concept is what it sounds like: A working fridge located in a publicly accessible area of a neighborhood—often on the property of a small business—is regularly stocked with produce from spinach and lettuce to citrus, dairy products like eggs and milk, and other perishable goods. Sometimes dry goods are stored next to the fridge.

Community fridges go back nearly 10 years to Germany and Spain, but they didn’t first show up in America until during the pandemic. In February “Friendly Fridges” were set up in New York City, and since then people in cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago have established their own locations. The first fridge in Houston was set up in Third Ward in early August by Nina Mayers and Vanessa Lipscomb, Alief residents who saw an immediate need during the pandemic. As of September there were four fridges located in areas close to or near food deserts where small businesses agreed to host them—the first in Third Ward, and two in Alief and one in Bellaire. One of the Alief fridges is only open on Sundays, but the others are open as long as the private business attached to the fridge allows a public access point.

Anyone can donate to one of the fridges just by showing up with the food and following guidelines, like washing all produce beforehand, making sure containers are sealed, labeling all perishables, and sanitizing when dropping off. Fridges are usually fully restocked within two days. Folks can also donate money, and every few days volunteers will buy products with the funds. Volunteers also monitor the fridges, which means hanging out for up to three hours to answer questions and clean any donations to keep up with city health code standards.

Lipscomb grew up in a food desert in Alief, something she didn’t understand until she was in her 20s and buying her own groceries. When she was a kid, common dinner items were frozen pizzas, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese; now she teaches underserved students about wellness through her nonprofit the WOW Project. That, plus her work with the fridges, is giving her hope that food insecurity can be combated.

“It’s good for me. It shows me how many people really do want to help,” says Lipscomb. “It feels good to know that I’m helping the community eat.”

Vanessa Lipscomb worked with Mayers on setting up Houston's first fridges, including this one in Alief.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Community gardens can only do as much work as their size allows, and even a few fridges in a neighborhood wouldn’t be able to keep entire communities fed consistently. But they’re good options to get started, says Hernandez, who in particular says fridges “may be on the right path.”

“What that is doing is enhancing access, and it may help the individuals most in need, those unavailable to go to distribution sites because they’re caring for a sick parent or child,” she says. “What that does is relieve the pressure from the NRG drive-thru where you have lots of people going through that facility.”

Establishing a grocery store that’s stocked daily with fresh produce is a much more ambitious challenge, but Rhodes likes to think big. He says his pivot is “bigger than me.”

“When I got Indigo, I knew it was going to be a stepping stone, a building block to something bigger,” he says. “I know what I’m trying to get to, and I’m over the debating with people about it.”

Rhodes grew up in Eastex/Jensen, where he says it was common that one house might trade some leftover citrus from an orange tree to another for some leftover nuts from a pecan tree, but fresh food was otherwise hard to come by. He wasn’t aware as a kid that this wasn’t the norm. It was when he was older that he realized his family had to drive a couple of miles to get healthier fare. But now that he sees the inequality, he opts not to use the term “food desert.”

“It takes away a sense of accountability. Deserts indicate that something can’t grow there, that the climate isn’t right,” he says. “I call it food apartheid. It’s agricultural oppression.” Rhodes says it’s no mistake that some neighborhoods, usually with a majority Black or Hispanic population, lack access to fresh produce. It’s simply structural racism—the same he’s been teaching at Indigo.

Broham Fine Soul Food and Groceries opened April 1 at 2019 Bennington Street in Eastex/Jensen. It lasted about two weeks before Rhodes moved inventory back to Indigo, primarily because he didn’t have enough to fill the larger space. Rhodes says he “cowboy’d it” in opening Broham, essentially using the store’s launch as a way to test his future plan of opening a full-scale grocery store.

That store, he says, will be served primarily by Food Fight Farms, three acres of land that he owns about 90 minutes north of Houston. There he’s planting fruit trees to grow avocados and citrus, lettuce and assorted greens, potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables. He calls the future store “sustainable” with  the products inside coming straight from Food Fight, though when asked about the origin of meat and fish products, he says he’s “not quite ready to share that with the public yet.” Essentially, he says, he’s still figuring out details; or, in short, creating a grocery store from the ground up is a major challenge.

“It would take a lot of people to do that,” says Hernandez. “My concern with the idea of ‘Build a grocery store and they will come’ is, even though it seems like a solution, that has been done before.”

Hernandez cites the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a statewide program lasting from 2004 to ’10 that financed new supermarkets and grocery stores in both urban and rural areas of the state. While it worked in opening new markets in a few Philadelphia neighborhoods known as food deserts, Hernandez says none of those markets were created with the residents in mind. Or, in another sense, they weren’t sustainable for Black and Hispanic communities, not featuring food that’s culturally appropriate, and not facilitating the needs of the populations they were meant to serve.

Rhodes looks to another solution currently taking place in Philadelphia. Omar Tate is a chef whose story reads a lot like Rhodes’s: Born in Philly, Tate worked in restaurants before starting a pop-up called Honeysuckle, based on the history of Black food. His dishes, even down to the titles (Smoked Turkey Necks in 1980s Philadelphia is smoked turkey necks with beans and connects to the police bombing of a Black militant group’s inner-city home in 1985), sound a whole lot like Rhodes’s dishes. And like Rhodes, Tate decided during the pandemic to pivot, announcing in July his plans to open the Honeysuckle Community Center, combining a grocery store, meat market, and café, a place that can also host music and art events, community organizing events, and supper club nights.

That’s in a sense what Rhodes wants to do in Houston—a Black-owned grocery that also works as a community hub, so he can both create food security for neighbors and give them a place to organize. The odds are against him, but he’s confident it’s the way forward to fight food insecurity and, as he says, protect everyone.

“I’m having to create a new operations model,” says Rhodes. “It takes some time to do it right. A lot of preparing goes into it, and I’m excited for where it is so far. It’s pretty damn good, I’ve gotta say.”

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