Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Eating Poor in Texas

“We don’t get many people around here buying these . . . vegetables, I mean.”  This poor Wal-Mart cashier—for the life of him he could not figure out what he held in his hand so that he could put the code into the register.  Iceberg Lettuce: 1 – Rural Northeast Texas Health and Wal-Mart Cashier: 0. 

At least that small East Texas town has a supermarket.  Other places are not so lucky.  The United States Department of Agriculture has declared many census blocks around the country “food deserts.”  These areas are defined not by the absence of places to get food at all, but by the absence of healthy food.  Overpriced corner stores lacking basic produce, staples, and cheap prices along with fast food restaurants supply the demand for food in many of these neighborhoods and, in some cases, whole communities.

Houston, Texas, epitomizes the problem.  According to a December 2010 Food Trust study, Houston has among the fewest grocery stores per capita in the country for a total of 185 too few grocery stores overall.  Areas where people are further than a mile from a grocery store can be seen in a map produced by the University of Houston, and predominantly featured are poor, minority neighborhoods.  And the USDA’s Food Desert Locator literally paints the city red with food deserts in which people lack ready access to nutrition.

Poor communities in North Houston, the Fifth Ward, the Third Ward, and other locales around the city are dependent upon public transportation more so than their wealthier neighbors, and as such, what few grocery stores are available are hard to access.  Comparing, for example, the Third Ward to the Greater Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area, in the Third Ward only 51% of people travel to work (and presumably, travel to the grocery store) in their personal car by themselves versus 78% for the area as a whole.  Twenty-one percent of Third Ward residents travel by public transport versus 2% of the Greater Houston area.

However, Houston might also stand as a testament of how to approach this tremendous civil rights challenge of getting people access healthy food within their reach.  At-large councilman of Houston Stephen Costello is pushing the City Council to give tax breaks and other incentives to grocery stores that build in food deserts.  As of November 2011, at least three such incentivized projects were underway; however, while these stores are located close to areas deemed food deserts, none are in Third Ward neighborhoods.  Only time will tell if the city will throw its energy into more of these projects, and furthermore that it will spend its money on targeting the worst-off areas most in need of a good supermarket.

Supermarkets will solve the problem of food deserts but not the challenge of limited income, and, perhaps equally difficult, the challenge of reconciling healthy eating with years of a different lifestyle.  Efforts to change how people eat will come with a risk of imposing on people new food choices against their preferences, which is doomed to fail.  Thinking of a luckier part of the Fifth Ward in Houston, the meat section of a local H-E-B there is lined for a good fifteen feet with super-sized packages of chicken legs, chicken wings, and chicken thighs.  And if a person does not feel like cooking, a fried chicken restaurant is available near the front.   It seems like a stereotype because it is one, lived out in the form groceries.  This H-E-B has a small produce section, but I saw nary a soul stopping to add greens to her basket.   The meat section: crammed.  All of this is not to judge people for their lifestyles, or even to criticize H-E-B for giving the people what they want.  Instead, I hope to encourage a dialogue of understanding, education, and compromise combined with a discussion of how best to provide easy access to healthy, high quality, affordable food to the poor of cities like Houston. 

Ralph C. Mayrell
Staff Editor

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