A true passion of mine for some time has been the ever-prevalent issue of food deserts. I’ve heard many speak about it, and have listened to various elected officials talk about the need to eliminate this problem in communities of color. However the issue remains, as many suffer from a lack of access to quality foods and products. The key word is QUALITY.
I recently visited our local neighborhood Fiesta Supermarket, located on the corner of Wheeler and San Jacinto, as I frequently do in the evenings to pick up a quick meal. On this particular occasion, I purchased a package of fresh ears of corn that was cut by the store and placed into the packaging with a price sticker on top. The ears cost a little more than my usual frozen corn on the cob, but I figured it was worth the increase in price for fresh food. I didn’t know that once I got home I would open that package to find corn that was molding with an expiration date that was five days away.
Houston’s lowest income citizens are forced to consume foods that are of lesser quality so that grocery stores can simply save a dollar. It’s time for us to stop talking about this problem and force those that have the power to change this to act. Studies indicate Houston has 440,000 residents that reside in food deserts. Texas currently has fewer supermarkets per capita than any other state. Supermarkets have contended in the past that there is not enough money to be made in low-income communities to sustain decent grocery stores. This argument perpetuates the same corporate greed that broke down our country’s financial system on Wall Street. More importantly the people, and those elected to serve them, should demand more of these companies that profit daily off the backs of poor people.
Some companies have begun to open pantry and discount stores in low income communities. Although this gesture offers some hope, it still represents a lack of social equity in business practices. The same company will create high profile stores complete with nice buggies for children, specialty items, and restaurants under their corporate brand, while offering low-income residents a lesser shopping experience under a different name. A true commitment to eliminating food deserts includes creating a solution that not only provides access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but also creates a sense of dignity and community in the process. Together is still not equal when we serve a lesser product for a lesser price yielding the same profit margin.
There are many organizations that have taken a proactive approach to this problem. Groups such as Target Hunger, SHAPE Community Center, and the Houston Food Bank have really stepped up to the plate for citizens. It’s not enough to place nonprofit food pantries in these communities and expect them to carry the work of solving a major social problem. In 2011, PolicyLink issued a report regarding alleviating food deserts in our communities through a comprehensive approach that includes four strategies - develop new grocery stores, improve small stores, start and sustain farmers’ markets, and connect local farmers to low-income consumers.
It’s time for government to get serious about addressing one of the most pressing moral issues of our generation. We can’t continue to allow corporations to make excuses for under-serving citizens. There have been numerous studies that link poverty to the disparate impact on low income communities in the areas of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and many forms of cancer. Food, and the lack of access to it, contribute greatly to these realities. It’s time for our community to launch an unholy war against these stores, a war as unholy as the food they serve. If the community doesn’t stand up, a generation will be impacted. It only takes a small committed group to say, “Enough.” We call on everyone to stand with us.
Dallas S. Jones is the CEO of Elite Change, LLC a public affairs and political consulting firm with offices in Houston , Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Washington, DC. He resides in the 3rd Ward community with his wife Angela Lopez Jones.