500K+ Houstonians live in ’food deserts’ with little to no access to healthy food and the problem has worsened due to COVID-19

Stronger Houston: Food deserts in Houston area a widening problem amid pandemic

HOUSTON – A quick stop at a neighborhood grocery store for a forgotten ingredient or a trip to load up on meals for the week is something many of us do regularly. But unfortunately, across Houston, access to fresh food doesn’t come as easily for all and it impacts lives in more ways than one.

Many people may have heard of “food insecurity” which refers to not having money for regular nutritious meals. Food deserts are areas where stores with healthy food options don’t even exist. These issues are often connected and the solutions are not easy to come by. Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold over the region, it’s gotten even more challenging.

“You need healthy foods, healthy affordable food within a walking distance or within close proximity to people’s homes so they can have healthy foods and a healthy lifestyle and end up living longer,” explained Frederick Goodall, the Assistant Director of Communications for BakerRipley House.

READ ALSO: COVID-19 exposes major disparities between neighboring Houston-area communities — Gulfton and Bellaire

Since the pandemic began, BakerRipley House has hosted drive-thru food distributions every week, several times a week. Sometimes they see 300 to 500 people a day. Other times, that number has been closer to 1,000.

“Food deserts are a big problem here in Houston and considering the size of our city and diversity everyone talks about, it’s actually very sad (that) many communities don’t have a single grocery store they can go to,” added Goodall.

“A while ago, I lived near San Felipe and Voss and there were three grocery stores within a block of my house and you come to different areas of town and there are zero grocery stores. This really affects the quality of life, your health, and all aspects of your community,” said Goodall.

A food desert is an area where at least a third of the population lives more than a mile away from a supermarket for urban areas and greater than 10 miles away for rural areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA has designated these areas as food deserts in and around Houston:

In the Houston area, those places include: Second Ward, Greater Fifth Ward, out the East End, Galena Park out to Channelview, East Houston, up to Aldine Westfield, out to Acres Homes, down to Bellaire, southwest Houston, Sunnyside, and Central Southwest.

 You can check out the USDA’s interactive food desert map here.

Food deserts in the Houston-area according to a map from the United States Department of Agriculture. (USDA)

A recent study by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research found an estimated 724,750 people who are food insecure live in the Greater Houston area. With a food insecurity rate of 16.6%, that’s four percentage points above the national average, and more than 500,000 Houston residents live in the USDA’s designated food deserts. Experts say it usually affects areas with more poverty. Read more about that study here.

“The two often go hand in hand because it is food insecurity that will generally drive a food desert,” said Brian Greene, President of the Houston Food Bank.

Jonnie Mitchell Wallace lives on Houston’s Central Southwest side. The closest grocery store to her is the Foodarama on Hiram-Clarke Road and West Fuqua Street. She is in her 70′s and has to take a cab or bus to get there.

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“They let me have a chair to sit down in when I’m waiting on my cab,” Mitchell Wallace said.

Jonnie says it’s difficult for her but much worse for others in the community who cannot get around on their own.

“The elders really need someone to check on them and find out the groceries they need and deliver it to them,” Mitchell Wallace said.

About 10 miles away in a Southside community also marked as a food desert, one of the only options for groceries, Jim’s Supermarket, was reduced to rubble.

“Well they got access to all the stores by the medical center but for the poor neighborhoods a lot of the stores are moving out and Jim’s just burned down and they were servicing a lot of the community, the Black community,” explained Southside resident JP Stradick.

“It’s very inconvenient. A lot of people that don’t have cars can’t get to the store. Family Dollar doesn’t have everything Jim’s had,” said Evelyn Holloman who lives behind what used to be Jim’s Supermarket.

Once the coronavirus pandemic and it’s economic fallout hit, many families lost income and even more people found themselves needing help.

“We immediately saw both hunger and poor nutrition issues go up very quickly,” said Brian Greene, president of the Houston Food Bank.

The Houston Food Bank does a lot to help about 800,000 people in need in an 18-county area. Their mission is to combat food deserts and food insecurity. But it’s not an issue that can be changed overnight because grocery stores typically aren’t built in areas where there isn’t income to sustain them.

“Simply thinking of this as, ‘Oh if we just provide more nutrition and education or if we try to subsidize supermarkets those techniques have been proven not to work,’” Greene added. “We need to look at how we can help families not be in poverty and over time we’re not going to see food deserts when that happens.”

The Houston Food Bank is trying to go beyond emergency food assistance. It is supporting efforts to break the cycle of poverty through a “food for change” initiative.

Food scholarships are offered to college students, adults pursuing workforce development programs and families in affordable housing who commit to reading programs, so their children have a better shot at higher education, higher income, and healthier life.

The Houston Food Bank also partners with “Brighter Bites” which provides fresh fruits and vegetables.

This heartbreaking video shows the long, winding lines of cars waiting to get food from a Houston Food Bank food distribution event in April:

Heartbreaking video shows long line of cars outside Houston Food Bank distribution center

To help any of these causes or to get help, here is a list of resources:

What is Stronger Houston?

As Houston’s first television station and after more than 70 years of broadcasting, KPRC continues to work to serve our community. In our series Stronger Houston,” we examine issues impacting people inequitably by race, gender, income, age, geography, religion, and other factors. These fault lines can create unfair divides in our community. We strive to not only raise awareness but also focus on solutions, resources available, and the people and groups working to reduce the disparity and ultimately create a stronger Houston.