'Food deserts' a problem in Houston

November 6, 2011 8:09:33 PM PST
Houston is joining other American cities and First Lady Michelle Obama in the fight against what are called food deserts -- neighborhoods that don't have easy access to a grocery store.

That means the residents often can't buy fresh, healthy food.

Myrtha Billups has a pantry full of food, but no easy way to get it.

"The grocery stores are terrible around here," Billups said.

She's lived in Houston's Third Ward for more than 50 years and, while it wasn't always this way, it's tough for her to get to a grocery store without a ride from her daughter.

"You go to these little stores and buy, just, garbage," Billups said.

Express Mart is the closest food store to her home, but she won't shop there.

"I can't shop here. There's nothing I want," she said.

She took us in to show us what is there -- not much bread, virtually no fresh produce and little meat.

"Is this healthy?" we asked.

"No, no it's not," Billups replied.

"In Houston, food deserts are a big problem. We have more food deserts than other metropolitan cities in the U.S.," Laura Spanjian with the City of Houston Office of Sustainability said.

Billups is one of 440,000 Houston area residents who live in what's called a food desert -- a neighborhood without enough access to grocery stores.

"The truth is, we can talk about food deserts all we want, but we're not making any strides," Councilmember Jolanda Jones said.

Some city council members have said it's time for the city to do something about Houston's problem, going so far as to suggest maybe the city should help companies open new stores in food-deserted areas.

Instead, the city of Houston has signed tax giveaway deals to three other grocery stores in the last year: H-E-B at Gulfgate, which was already open and wanted financial help to stay open; a new Wal-Mart on the edge of The Heights; and a new Kroger half a mile away.

All three are close to food desert areas, but when the two incentivized stores are built, there will be five full-size grocery stores within two miles of one another.

But not a single one in Billups' Third Ward neighborhood.

"No money, people no money," said Tong Troung, owner of Express Mart.

And that's the problem.

Grocery stores open where they can make money, and it's tough to get them into these areas.

Wal-Mart has committed to building nearly 300 stores in food deserts across the country, but hasn't announced plans to add many in Houston.

The city isn't finished trying to convince others to come.

"There is a national dialogue going on about our issues around obesity and lack of nutrition in families, so anything the city can do to actually improve that is important," Spanjian said.

The city would love to get something to move into Billups' area, and they are working toward that end.

The problem affects not just Houstonians, but 23.5 million Americans nationwide.


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