Food for Thought

Opening the Taps on Food Deserts

Could a combination of gentrification and grocery store deregulation help Houston's poorest neighborhoods?

By Nick Panzarella January 31, 2014

Could alcohol sales help end food deserts in Houston?

Earlier this month the City of Houston altered city regulations, allowing grocery stores to sell beer and wine near schools and churches. The sale of alcohol was initially prohibited within 300 feet of a church and 1,000 feet from public schools, and the rule change is intended to entice new supermarkets into church-rich but food-poor neighborhoods.

A quick glance at Google Maps will show that Houston's neighborhoods with the worst access to fresh food also contain the highest concentration of churches. I've had friends choose not to move into the "perfect" apartment after all because there were no grocery options in the area. It goes without saying that this is a problem current residents of many food deserts deal with every day

The original ordinance about schools and churches is not the cause of Houston's unhealthy food offerings in poorer neighborhoods, however. If that were the case, "food deserts"—or neighborhoods with no grocery store within a one mile radius—would not be the national issue that Michelle Obama has chosen to crusade against. Food deserts are simply a byproduct of business.

Big grocery chains out-competed neighborhood grocery stores in most cities long ago, and poor neighborhoods aren't attractive to large grocery stores. Houston's rule change is intended to combat the trend, allowing for smaller grocers to return to poorer neighborhoods with the benefit of cash made from alcohol sales. "It's not that you can't make money in these areas," Mayor Annise Parker was quoted as saying, "it just doesn't fit the model these big chains like to use. We're working with independents. We think we're going to have more success with that."

New H-E-B or Fiesta stores in these poorer neighborhoods would be great (not to mention Whole Foods or Trader Joes), but this change could also potentially pave the way for more small grocers in the city, subsidizing their local meat and produce with alcohol sales, like the notable Jim's Super chain. It may be hard to imagine now, but as growth continues in places like the East End and Third Ward, it's not inconceivable that we could see a proliferation of Jim's Super or Revival Market-type grocers sprout up along light rail lines in what is now considered a food desert.

The city used its capabilities wisely with the recent rule change, but a few simple concessions to grocery stores are not the solution to Houston's food access issue. Still, the optimist in me believes we will see our food deserts flourishing with new grocery stores in a matter of years as supermarkets develop alongside new apartments and townhomes going into lower income neighborhoods. If a balance can be maintained with this growth—a mingling of the new and old—maybe gentrification can do some good for the residents of Houston's grocery store-deprived neighborhoods.

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