Food deserts in Houston

If you listened to the interview I did with CM Stephen Costello, you would have heard him talk about “food deserts” in Houston, which is a problem to which he has turned his attention. This Chron story goes into some detail about that.

[Costello] wants Houston’s city government to lure supermarkets to neighborhoods with few places to buy produce. He is talking about tax breaks, sales tax rebates, utility subsidies, even using public dollars to buy the land for a private business.

“When you look at bringing in a grocery store into an under-served area, you improve the health of the community and you improve the quality of life of the neighborhood,” said the At-Large Position 1 city councilman.

During budget deliberations last month, Costello tried unsuccessfully to insert an amendment that would have given priority to projects that bring healthy food to under-served areas as the city decides which developers deserve subsidies and incentives. The city, he argued, should take action to eliminate “food deserts” — areas where healthy and affordable food is difficult to come by.

The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit dedicated to making healthy food available to everyone, issued a report last year that found Houston to have a shortage of supermarkets and said that the shortage is most acute in low-income neighborhoods.

The Food Trust says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted more obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health problems in neighborhoods that have no supermarkets.

You can find the Food Trust report on Houston here. It should be noted that the problems associated with these neighborhoods that lack supermarkets are more complicated than that, but that is a big part of it, and it’s something local government can do to ameliorate.

The city is planning a supermarket summit this fall, according to Laura Spanjian, Houston’s sustainability director. Costello is seeking grocers interested in opening up shop in Sunnyside, the Antoine Drive area and the East End. He also is searching for foundations that fund public health initiatives. He is researching economic development tools the city could use to encourage supermarkets to locate in the neighborhoods.

Spanjian praised Costello’s efforts, which complement such city initiatives as community gardens and farmers markets in under-served neighborhoods. Spanjian said a local nonprofit has submitted a proposal for grant funding for a fleet of produce mobiles that would cruise the city like ice cream trucks. The city also is trying to pair convenience store owners with produce vendors to get more fruits and vegetables onto limited shelf space.

All of these ideas sound pretty good to me. Some may work better than others, but you won’t know until you try.

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