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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.’‚ÄČ”

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.

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  1. Food deserts, or semideserts, happen in rural areas too. The HEB here in Marlin is crappy on fruit/vegetable choices compared to Waco. Also, it overcharges on something as basic as its house brand of “Triscuits” here vs Waco.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    The city has no business giving $ 1 MM to a private business owner. If the guy wants to build a store in Sunnyside, and he thinks he can recoup the investment of building a new store, let him, otherwise, he can try and find an existing property to rent for his store. The taxpayers shouldn’t be giving out money to private business. If they are, hey, my business could use a million dollar cash infusion. I promise to work in Sunnyside if the city gives me that million.

    Perhaps, instead, the city could do $ 1MM worth of pothole repairs in Sunnyside. It’s crony capitalism when Rick Perry does it, but suddenly it’s OK as long as Mayor Parker is doing it? How about no, across the board.

  3. Mainstream says:

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

    This definition seems expansive to me. I would imagine there are parts of River Oaks,, West U, and the Heights at distances more than 1 mile from a grocery store.

    I never see any discussion of the problems with shoplifting and crime as a part of the explanation for why retailers choose not to open grocery stores in low income, high crime neighborhoods.