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food deserts

One less food desert

From the inbox:

With high hopes of more to come, Mayor Annise Parker, Council Members Stephen Costello and Dwight Boykins, the Houston Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and others broke ground on the first project to target a Houston food desert. With financial assistance from the city, Pyburn’s owner John Vuong is building a first-class grocery store to serve South Union and surrounding neighborhoods. The store is scheduled to open the first quarter of 2015.

“An estimated two-thirds of Houstonians are overweight or obese and a high percentage of them live in food deserts with no access to fresh food,” said Mayor Parker. “This forces families in these areas to rely on unhealthy processed or fatty foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants. I am excited that we are able to take the first step to address this problem that impacts the overall health of our residents and am confident there will be additional opportunities for grocery stores in other food desert areas in Houston.”

“Everyone should have access to fresh food, no matter the zip code,” said council member Costello. “I am grateful to the Vuongs for recognizing the need and reconfirming their commitment to serving the community. Pyburn’s will not only provide fresh meat and produce to South Union, but will also create jobs for our city’s youth and spur economic development in an area ripe for more industry.”

Vuong and his family own and operate 11 stores, nine of which are located in Houston. They have extensive experience operating in low to moderate income areas. The new venture, which must create a minimum of 25 jobs, will be the next generation of the company’s stores, named Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods. The funding agreement with the city requires that the store be designed to provide customers with a shopping experience equal to that of grocery stores in high income areas of Houston. In addition, there is room at the site for additional complementary development. The loan agreement prohibits uses inconsistent with community revitalization, such as liquor stores and pay-day loan establishments.

“My family purchased the land at Scott and Corder over eight years ago and this opportunity to partner with the City of Houston allows us to realize our dream of bringing healthy fresh food choices to South Union and the surrounding communities,” said Voung. “We are humbled by this opportunity to invest, serve and bring over 25 new jobs to this community.”

Council member Dwight Boykins is excited the new store will be located in his council district. “As a child growing up on welfare, my walk to school took me by this site,” said Boykins. “I am thankful to the mayor, the Voung family and all the other people who worked so hard to secure this opportunity for my community.”

“Everyone deserves the opportunity to purchase healthy food for their family,” said Yael Lehmann, Executive Director of The Food Trust. “We applaud this initiative by the City of Houston to increase access to grocery stores in underserved areas,” said.”

The City is providing a performance-based loan of $1.7 million for predevelopment, land acquisition, construction and equipment. The total project cost is estimated to be $3.7 million. Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds awarded to the Houston Redevelopment Authority for economic development projects will be used for the project. Funding is available for additional projects and HRA will work with potential partners on a case-by-case basis to determine eligibility for building or revitalizing grocery stores in food desert areas.

To combat food deserts in Houston, which has fewer grocery stores per capita than most large cities in the country, the Mayor, partnering with Council Member Costello, The Food Trust and Children At Risk, created the Houston Grocery Access Task Force in 2011. At the end of 2012, the Task Force issued their report, Roadmap for Encouraging Grocery Development in Houston and Texas. Economic development tools, such as performance-based loans, were highlighted as key opportunities to increasing access to fresh food. The report can be accessed here.

The Chron story is here. We first heard about this proposal in December. Council passed an update to its ordinance about the minimum distance a retailer that sells beer and wine must be from schools and churches in January to allow supermarkets to be built in some places where they would otherwise have been forbidden. Here’s a Google map link to where this Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods is going up. According to CultureMap, the closest existing grocery store is an HEB at Scott and Old Spanish Trail 1.2 miles away. That’s not that far, but if you live south of Corder it could get to be a bit of a hike, especially if you depend on public transportation. Be that as it may, I think it’s a good thing to encourage this kind of development in parts of the city that don’t have it regardless of whether there are any associated health benefits to it. I do hope someone is going to follow up with a study, however, because if there really are health benefits we as a country should pursue this kind of development more aggressively, and if there aren’t we should at least be careful to not make dishonest arguments in favor of it.

Council OKs ordinance to help bring grocery stores to food deserts

Good.

Supermarkets now can sell beer and wine next to schools and churches, an exemption to city regulations Houston City Council granted unanimously Wednesday, hoping to encourage grocers to locate in neighborhoods that lack access to fresh, healthy food.

These so-called “food deserts” are common in Houston, typically in poor areas such as Third Ward and Fifth Ward that also tend to have a high concentration of churches. Without the rule change, grocers – which industry experts say must offer beer and wine to be competitive – could not operate within 300 feet of churches and most private schools, or within 1,000 feet of public schools.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who helped lead efforts to pass the exemption and long has worked on the food desert issue, said an independent grocer has agreed to open a 20,000-square-foot store in south Houston, and said he has meetings scheduled soon with four large grocery chains.

“We’re talking to them about how the city can help them come into these under-served areas because, obviously, they’re taking a risk. There’s a reason they’re not there in the first place,” Costello said. “This item was one of the last variables we were trying to overcome. We’re figuring out ways to try to peel back the onion to get them to come into these areas.”

[…]

The language passed Wednesday defines a grocery store as covering at least 10,000 square feet of floor space, and excludes businesses that allow alcoholic drinks to be consumed on site and those that derive more than 25 percent of their gross receipts from booze sales.

Jane West, of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, said members of the civic club coalition were satisfied with the amended language. Still, West said the impact of the change may be limited.

“I hope it does, but I’m very skeptical it will actually provide the benefit it’s promised to provide,” she said. “To me, the risk is they’re just going to encourage more of the large convenience stores, the kind of stores they want to eliminate.”

As I said when this first came up, I didn’t understand the restriction on alcohol sales near churches. Be that as it may, this strikes me as a sensible approach, one that will still keep bars and liquor stores out of the affected areas. As to whether or not it will actually provide the promised benefit, the proof will be in whether or not any new grocery stores get built in places that had previously lacked them. CM Costello says one is in hand, and we’ll see when that announcement happens, and if any others follow it. Finally, for those of you that scoff at the whole notion of “food deserts” in the first place, just think of this as the city loosening some regulations in order to encourage new businesses. Does that make it feel better? Texpatriate has more.

Food deserts and booze bans

It’s complicated.

A city ordinance intended to keep alcohol sales at a distance from schools and churches could be relaxed for grocery stores in an effort to alleviate some of the so-called “food deserts” that plague poorer neighborhoods across Houston.

The City Council is expected to take up the proposed revisions this week in hopes of removing one of the many barriers keeping Houston’s struggling neighborhoods from landing large groceries, which experts say must offer beer and wine to be competitive.

The idea is to make more locations available for supermarkets in areas where residents lack access to fresh, healthy foods. Studies have linked food deserts to diet-related diseases, as well as higher food prices for the residents in such areas.

University of Houston researchers have estimated 26 percent of Harris County residents, most in low-income areas, lack access to healthy food, slightly above the national average.

One of those areas is Houston’s Fifth Ward. The neighborhood just northeast of downtown is home to scores of stray dogs, liquor stores, abandoned buildings, illegal dump sites strewn with tires, and many churches. The historic neighborhood is not home to a large grocery store that stocks what residents consider reliably good, fresh produce.

A city ordinance currently prohibits the sale of alcohol within 300 feet of churches, public hospitals and most private schools, and within 1,000 feet of public schools and some private schools.

In Fifth Ward, these restrictions mean full-size groceries cannot build on many of the tracts large enough to hold them, since churches often sit right across the street.

“To have a grocery store with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, everything, it would attract people to move into the area,” Fifth Ward civic activist Kathy Blueford-Daniels said. “It would have a positive impact on the community because people wouldn’t have to travel so far. A lot of the people here still ride buses.”

[…]

Many of the multi-acre sites suitable for a grocery store are on major thoroughfares, precisely where churches and schools tend to locate, said Councilman Stephen Costello, who has worked on the food desert problem.

“We started plotting out all the areas we wanted to focus on and started plotting where the churches and schools were and realized, ‘Wow, we’re limiting exactly where we can put these stores,’ ” Costello said. “Some of these grocery stores, a small part of their sales is going to be alcohol, it’s just a part of their business plan. We had to figure out a way that, if we allow for the encroachment, it’s only for grocery stores that predominantly sell nothing but food.”

Maybe it’s because I’m not particularly religious, but I don’t quite get the restriction on alcohol sales near churches. I get it for schools, but for churches that seems more like a Prohibition-era remnant of official disapproval rather than a piece of coherent public policy. It’s not a huge deal, but this sort of restrictions should not in any way impede the goal of enabling grocery stores to be built in neighborhoods that really need them. I’m sure Council will figure it out.

Working to solve the food desert problem

This is a success story on two levels.

A number of area grocery stores like Jim’s Super might not be around if it were not for a little-known local Vietnamese immigrant family.

John Vuong took over his first store in 1994, and his siblings, in-laws and he now operate 11 locations that are almost all in low-income, under-served areas.

With the help of a city of Houston initiative expected to launch soon, he hopes to open his first built-from-the-ground-up store next year.

It, too, would be in a low-income area, near Loop 610 South and Scott.

The idea of owning a new store thrills him, he said. His existing supermarkets are like “old used cars” in constant need of repair.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who is on the city’s grocery access task force, said approval of Vuong’s application has not been finalized, but he is confident it will be accepted and serve as the pilot for possible future projects in the Third and Fifth Wards, the East Side, South Side and Sunnyside.

For a family living in an area designated a “food desert,” where the only food source might be fast food or a convenience store, getting fresh meat, produce and other staples is a burden, especially if you have no car, said Allison Karpyn, director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Food Trust, dedicated to bringing affordable nutritious food to more communities.

A food desert is defined as an area where there is no grocery store within a mile.

About 26 percent of Harris County residents lack access to healthy food, and the majority are in low-income areas, said Daphne Hernandez, assistant professor in the department of health and human performance at the University of Houston. That’s slightly higher than the national average.

[…]

Soon after he was elected to City Council in 2010, Costello attended a meeting on affordable housing in Sunnyside. He recalled, “A 75-year-old woman stood up and said she grew up there, ‘and to this day I still don’t have a grocery store in my neighborhood.’ ”

Costello contacted the Food Trust for ideas and learned the nonprofit was already studying Houston. It released a report that year highlighting the need for more supermarkets in the city’s lower-income areas and the connection between the absence of such stores and diet-related disease.

The Food Trust held meetings with city leaders, members of the supermarket industry, including Grocers Supply, and community development and children’s health experts. Grocers Supply recommended Vuong as the ideal person to open a new store, Arnold said.

Vuong is asking for a little more than $1 million from the city and will invest a minimum of $2.4 million of his own money.

The cost of the initial investment would be too high for him to undertake on his own. The economics wouldn’t make sense, said Lance Gilliam, a partner at WSG Real Estate Advisors who served on the task force, because grocery stores have such slim profit margins, especially those in low-income areas.

The city is reviewing Vuong’s application, and Costello anticipates the city, its Housing and Community Development Department and the Houston Housing Finance Corp. will greenlight the proposal by year’s end.

See here for some background, though unfortunately that Food Trust report on Houston appears to be offline now. John Vuong is a classic American success story on his own, as an immigrant from Vietnam who built a thriving grocery business in traditionally underserved parts of town. The fact that he is seeking to expand on that success, and that the city is willing to partner with him to help improve the availability of fresh food in low income neighborhoods adds an extra dimension to his success. I wish them all the best in this venture.

Laura Spanjian – From Industrial to Green Revolution: The New Houston

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Laura Spanjian

Bike Share kiosks in downtown. Electric vehicle charging stations at the grocery store. Over 15 miles of new rail lines being constructed. Wind turbines and solar on rooftops. Solar-powered mini-offices at schools and parks. E-cycling and polystyrene foam recycling. Urban gardens surrounding office buildings. LEED-certified historic buildings. Complete Streets in urban neighborhoods. Accessible and recreation-oriented bayous.

What City is this you ask?

The New Houston.

Innovation, creativity and a black gold rush spirit dominated industrial Houston at the turn of the last century – putting Houston on the map as an economic leader.

Today, Houston is at an historic juncture. Decision-drivers for the city and the region are no longer only economic. There is an emerging recognition that the city has the building blocks to be one of the most livable, equitable and sustainable places in the nation, and lead the next revolution: the green revolution.

What are these building blocks? Recently, Forbes Magazine placed Houston as the number one city for young professionals. And young professionals drive innovation and use new thinking to solve old issues. Houston has a business-friendly environment and a plethora of large companies conducting business in new ways. Houston has high average incomes and a concentration of graduates from elite colleges from across the country. Also, for the first time in thirty years, the Kinder Houston Area Study revealed a significant increase in the number of residents who support mass transit and prefer a less automobile-dependent, more urbanized lifestyle. And Mayor Annise Parker’s forward-thinking and innovative approaches and initiatives are putting Houston on the map as a national green leader.

What’s most exciting about Houston is that few people think it will lead the green revolution. But this sleeping giant is starting to awaken. Houstonians love a good challenge and love to save money.

At the turn of the last century, rich resources made Houston a national economic leader. At the turn of this century, rich resources will do the same. Texas has, by far, the largest installed wind power capacity of any U.S. state. The City of Houston capitalized on this and has been recognized by the EPA as the number one municipal purchaser of green power and the seventh largest overall purchaser in the nation.

The City has a robust partnership with the University of Houston’s College of Architecture’s Green Building Components Program. Their innovative faculty has designed the first movable solar powered office/generator, and the City, through a grant, has purchased 17 of these units for emergency preparedness and other uses. Houston also recently received two large grants to reduce the cost of solar for residents and test out new types of rooftop solar technology.

Houston Green Office Challenge

Houston does not only create cleaner ways to use energy, Houston actually uses less energy. The City knows about energy efficiency: over 80 City facilities are expected to achieve guaranteed energy use reductions of 30% with paybacks of, on average, less than ten years.

The City also wants energy efficiency to be part of the urban fabric of Houston. Through our Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP), led by the General Services Department, the City has helped 13k Houston residents weatherize their homes, resulting in 12-20% kWh reduction and $60-125 savings each month. On the commercial side, the award-winning Houston Green Office Challenge and the City’s partnership in the DOE’s Better Buildings Challenge are encouraging building owners and property managers to find innovative measures to reduce their energy and water consumption and decrease waste.

We also know that equally important to encouraging high performing buildings is looking at our codes. In January 2012, the City, with leadership from the Public Works and Engineering Department, set the bar high by adopting the Houston Residential Energy Code. This code makes Houston’s standards 5% above the state code for residential energy efficiency standards, and also requires all new residential buildings to be solar ready. And Houston is poised to adopt another 5% increase above state code this year.

It’s not just about energy efficiency. Houston also embraces green buildings. Currently Houston is number four in the nation in the number of LEED certified buildings with 186 certified projects. That’s up from #7 just a year ago.

One of the most impressive pieces of the green revolution is the emphasis on public transportation and new transportation technologies. Under the leadership of METRO, Houston will soon have three new rail lines, adding over 15 miles to the system.

Houston is at the forefront of the electric car movement. Houston was one of the first cities to receive EV cars for a City fleet, which now includes 40 Nissan Leafs and plug-in hybrids. And with partners such as NRG launching the first private investment in public EV charging infrastructure, Houston is leading in electric vehicle readiness.

In addition to electric, CNG is offering cleaner, cheaper fuel for additional options: In a partnership with Apache, the Airport’s new parking shuttles at IAH are being powered by natural gas.

With the launch of Houston B-cycle, the City’s bike share program is now a reality with 3 stations and 18 bikes in downtown, with $1 million in committed funding to grow to 20 stations and 225 bikes by the fall of 2012. This grant-funded program offers a transportation alternative for citizens and will help address pollution issues, traffic congestion, and rising oil costs.

And the City, under the leadership of the Houston Parks Board and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, recently won a $15 million highly competitive U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2012 TIGER grant. This project will assist in eliminating gaps in Houston’s bike grid: the project includes building 7.5 miles of off-street shared-use paths, 2.8 miles of sidewalks, and 7.9 miles of on-street bikeways.

And the dream and vision behind the Bayou Greenway project is becoming more of a reality. This proposed linear park system is unrivaled in its breadth and scope.

Finally, sustainability must encompass urban agriculture. The City Gardens and Farmers Market Initiative supports urban gardens and markets: the City has planted numerous new vegetable gardens (some of which are highlighted in First Lady Michele Obama’s new book, American Grown) and, with its partner Urban Harvest, has encouraged the sale and purchase of local food by starting a weekly farmers market at City Hall, with over 40 vendors.

In addition, the Mayor’s Council on Health and the Environment created an obesity task force to look at the importance of healthy eating and exercise. The Healthy Houston initiative will review and implement sustainable food policies for Houston to create work, school, and neighborhood environments conducive to healthier eating and increased physical activity. And under the leadership of Councilmember Stephen Costello, Houston is working to minimize food deserts and increase food access.

These initiatives are helping to make Houston a growing, thriving, modern, green city of the future, a destination for visitors, a magnet for new residents and a city well positioned in the global market.

The New Houston is here, and it’s on a roll.

Laura Spanjian is the Sustainability Director for the City of Houston. Learn more at http://www.greenhoustontx.gov, http://www.facebook.com/greenhoustontx and http://www.twitter.com/greenhoustontx.

“Zero waste” grocery store set to open

Coming soon to Austin.

The idea for a package-free organic grocery store started years ago when brothers Christian and Joseph Lane were discussing a simple business idea: refilling beer and wine bottles.

From there, they decided to include other basic grocery store offerings — meat, dairy, produce, bulk items and bread.

Next thing you know, the concept of a “zero-waste” grocery store was born.

The Lanes and a small group of partners are putting the finishing touches on their modest-sized store, called “in.gredients,” at 2610 Manor Road. The store is scheduled to open this summer.

Their idea is to cut out as much extraneous packaging as possible, with customers encouraged to bring their own containers for things like bulk items.

While there are some limitations as to what can be sold unpackaged because of health codes, “that’s part of our ethos, is to reduce waste and reduce unnecessary packaging,” said Brian Nunnery, head of business development. “And we would say that a lot of packaging that is out there right now is unnecessary.”

[…]

“We can’t open fast enough,” Joseph Lane said, adding that there is a desire for such a grocery in East Austin.

“You see a lot of folks in these neighborhoods that, you have to travel across (Interstate) 35, through campus and the nearest thing is Wheatsville (Co-op),” he said. “Wheatsville’s a great place, great people working there, but you’ve still got to go through all that to get there.”

See here for some background and here for their website. I’ll be very interested to see how this goes. I believe that if it’s successful there it ought to be viable in Houston as well; there are certainly plenty of parts of town that could use a real grocery store. Any Austin folks out there that are excited about this?

Wayside Wal-Mart update

From Nancy Sarnoff:

The East End of Houston has been called a “food desert” for its lack of grocery stores. But come next year, the area will be a little less dry.

Wal-Mart Stores said it will open a store at the corner of Interstate 45 and Wayside around the middle of next year. The company had been eyeing the spot for a 150,000-square-foot Supercenter for a while.

Construction details are still being completed, according to a spokeswoman.

“We are very excited about moving into and partnering with the East End community,” said Wal-Mart’s Kellie Duhr.

The store will be the second Walmart Supercenter inside the Loop. The first is being built near the Heights on Yale Street and should open this fall.

Source: Swamplot

We first heard about this almost exactly a year ago. Far as I know, there hasn’t been anywhere near the hue and cry over this location, which I daresay (and said at the time) is almost certainly because there are very few residences in the area, unlike the Heights Wal-Mart. I don’t know what the folks in the Idylwood neighborhood, on the other side of Sylvan Road, think about this, all I know is that if they hate it or love it, I haven’t heard it. This fits my perception of where big box retail belongs – adjacent to a highway, with direct access from the service road, and with separation from residential neighborhoods. I can’t quite tell from this Food Trust report on food deserts in Houston if that area qualifies as such, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s not exactly oversaturated with grocery options. Be all that as it may, here it comes whether you like it or not.

Interview with CM Stephen Costello

CM Stephen Costello

We begin the 2011 election interview season with first term Council Member Stephen Costello, elected in 2009 in At Large #1. He had a mission in mind when he ran for office, and that was a plan to fund street and drainage improvements in Houston. That plan became Renew Houston, now known as Rebuild Houston, for which a charter amendment was passed last year. He has also served as the Chair of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee. We chatted about these things and about what he’s working on now, which may surprise you, all of which you can listen to here:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2011 Elections page. My schedule for this will probably be two interviews a week to start, then ramping up to three later and possibly more towards the end. As always, your feedback is appreciated.

“Zero waste” grocery stores

This is a really interesting idea.

That environmentally friendly canvas shopping bag you proudly lug to the grocery store is about to get a lot more full, if you do your shopping in Austin, Texas.

You’ll need to fill it with your own reusable containers, because cereal boxes and beer bottles will be a thing of the past at In.gredients, a new-age grocery store opening in Austin later this year.

The company behind the idea says the concept is to create a shopping experience that forgoes any kind of packaging and instead lets customers buy as much or as little as they need by filling their own containers.

“Essentially it’s a very simple model, a throwback to old times,” said In.gredients co-founder Joseph Lane of Brothers Lane, LLC, which consists of Lane, his two brothers, and a friend of the family. “We were looking at a way of using these old methods to make it more convenient and easier for customers to participate in a zero waste lifestyle.”

[…]

Another component of the project, said Lane, is to follow a trend that he says is leaning toward Americans wanting to buy in bulk as opposed to traditional quantities. He believe that shopping this way will also be a cheaper option for shoppers.

“If you look at bulk foods, they are 35 percent cheaper than their packaged food equivalents. You’re not paying for marketing, or additional packaging, and you can also buy as little or as much as you need,” said Lane.

The Daily Texan notes another wrinkle to this idea:

Rather than open next to a major chain grocer for competition, the store targets areas known as food deserts, where healthy, affordable food is hard to come by; it plans to open in East Austin, which has more taquerias per square mile than grocery stores.

“We want to bring back the neighborhood grocer and get into areas where good food is missing,” Lane said. “There are convenient stores filled with junk food, but not neighborhood grocery stores with good quality food.”

See the Texas Green Report for a brief video overview of the In.gredients model. Sure, the idea of package-less food is a little radical, but I think this could work, especially if it allows In.gredients to compete on price. Whole Foods is many things, but your low cost option is not one of them. Combine that with locations in underserved areas and they may have a winner on their hands. According to the Trib, the Lane brothers have raised over 60% of their target capital and have enough to launch the store in the fall. If this works, they will look at expanding. I’d love to see them take a crack at Houston if that happens. What do you think about this?