Thursday, June 12

Houston Notes~ Be thankful you have a grocery store near you

If you thought you can take HEB, Kroger and Whole foods for granted, think again. A report published in 2012 showed that the state of Texas has the largest grocery gap with the lowest number of supermarkets per capita in the country (1). About 20% of Harris county residents do not have cars and the nearest supermarket is more than half a mile away. In Houston, one of the largest cities in Texas and my home, sixteen communities are considered to be “food deserts” and a majority of them are low-income neighborhoods (2, 3). The 2012 report suggested that the Houston area could use 185 more supermarkets. Large grocery stores are consumer-driven and are usually reluctant to set up shop in low-income neighborhoods with poor access to food especially since it does not justify their profit margins.  Attracting them to these locales poses challenges especially due to barriers such as identifying land for them to build structures on and cost of providing incentives to the supermarkets to come into the area (3).

What, then, are some of the alternatives to larger supermarkets?

While trying to lure supermarkets into these regions, planning a more sustainable venture that also stimulates the local economy must be a priority. I look around my neighborhood and I see plenty of opportunities, from sunny rooftops to lush bright green lawns. So, if any city can realize the dream of right to food for all, it certainly would be Houston, especially given its 12-month growing season.

Fortunately, the city is taking this issue of inequitable food access seriously.  Programs such as Healthy Houston and Sustainable Food Policy Initiatives have been put in place. Such projects and policies promote urban agriculture and aim to improve access to sustainable, fresh local food in all neighborhoods (4). In collaboration with Urban Harvest, local NGO that promotes local and sustainable food production, the City of Houston permanently hosts a weekly farmers market in the city hall and has also opened a couple of its gardens for vegetable gardening.

While, these initiatives are a step in the right direction, there is nearly not enough suggesting a lack of sense of urgency. The city needs to aggressively promote its programs and policies to its citizens so that these can be better utilized, raise awareness about food access issues and importance of sustainable food production for the health of people and the local economy. Partnering with organizations such as Urban Harvest to bring farmers markets to areas with poor access to food is an important step and farmers who take part in these markets could be given incentives further motivate them. 

People like Kim Perry have taken the matter in their own hands with projects like Backyard Garden Growers, a progressive idea in which people give up parts of their unutilized yard space for productive gardening (5). The city could build on such innovative ideas, especially to target the food deserts in the city.

Since, the area is booming with new constructions both residential and commercial in almost all neighborhoods, the city should consider mandating allocation of garden space in such newer properties. The city should also incorporate productive gardens when planning for revitalization of existing parks, other community spaces and large cemented parking lots.

A fully functional food policy council or a working group as a part the local government serves many functions including innovating, advocacy and coordination with other relevant agencies. Houston can learn from the successes of cities like Toronto where the Toronto food policy council, established in 1991 as a subcommittee of the Board of Health, works closely with the city’s public health food strategy team (7).

We have to stop looking at food, health, the environment we live in and the environment of where our food comes from as distinct entities. Any new food policy measure should focus on local, sustainable, healthy foods, that are accessible to all.

The one thing I have learned in the last couple of years since our move to Houston is that Houstonians love good food, and who doesn’t?  The next time you shop for groceries to make a fancy date night meal- be thankful and take a few moments to think about how you can make healthful food available to everybody.

1.     Access to Healthy and Affordable Food Is Critical to Good Nutrition. Available at
3.     Filling Houston’s food gaps. Available at
4.     Houston Looks At Ways to Bring Fresh Food To Underserved Neighborhoods. Available at 
5.     Mayor Parker Launches Healthy Houston Initiative. Available at
7.   Roadmap for encouraging grocery development in Houston Texas. Available at