At Hattie’s Food Store and Grill, whose mustard yellow sign advertises “GROCERY, ICE, HOT FOOD,” there’s milk and a few canned vegetables—dusty from being left untouched—but produce, fresh meat and other healthier foods? Those staples aren’t available here.
“No one asks for [produce] here … maybe once every few years,” store owner James Garcia tells me. The store has been in the neighborhood for nearly 45 years. “It’s regular convenience store food. Cigarettes, soda, chips.”
So Laquita Hall, who lives just a few blocks from Hattie’s in Fort Worth’s Historic Southside, has to venture elsewhere to buy groceries.
Hall makes the long trek to a Walmart in Fort Worth’s Poly neighborhood once a month to shop. It’s only 2.8 miles away, but without a car, the basic and necessary task of getting to the grocery store can take hours. She lives with her father and mother, and when she walks to get groceries, usually with her mom or a few of her 11 children in tow, frequent breaks are needed for Hall’s mother, who has breathing problems. “You gotta do what you gotta do,” Hall says. “We stop and rest.”
Hall and her family lives in what’s called a food desert, a place where healthy food is hard to come by. Residents in these neighborhoods are typically forced to rely on corner stores, where they’re limited to milk, eggs and canned goods, or spend hours venturing outside their communities to purchase produce and fresh meat.
“If there’s anything available, it’s not healthy food. It’s beer, eggs and bread.”
And it’s a bigger issue than lost time: Without access to nutritious food, residents in these communities are at greater risk of health problems. There’s especially a lot at stake for children, who require nutritious foods for learning and development.
It’s hard to imagine being hours away from a grocery store in the densely developed heart of Dallas-Fort Worth. But Fort Worth’s Historic Southside is far from the only place in North Texas where food access is an issue.
Dangers of the Desert
“People knew that certain areas are food deserts, but they hadn’t really thought about it,” says Ann Salyer-Caldwell, deputy director of Tarrant County Public Health.
Food deserts are defined as low-income areas where residents don’t have access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this means being more than a mile from the nearest supermarket in an urban setting, or more than 10 miles away in a rural area.
Forty Dallas neighborhoods and several areas in Garland, East Plano, Allen and McKinney are also considered food deserts, according to USDA’s map. In Tarrant County, 11 ZIP codes were identified as food deserts by Tarrant County Public Health in a 2013 analysis.
Because of the limited availability of healthy foods, food deserts frequently have high rates of diet-related health problems.
A new study published in January from the University of Texas at San Antonio confirms that Americans who are food insecure and who live in food deserts are at greater risk of obesity. That seems counterintuitive, but low-nutrient, highly processed and sugary food and drinks, which are often the only thing available in food deserts, contribute to obesity in kids and adults.
“In food deserts, if there’s anything available, it’s not healthy food,” Salyer-Caldwell says. “It’s beer, eggs and bread at convenience stores.”
Living in food deserts can affect certain people in even more specific ways. “For example, if you are diabetic and are not able to access food every day of month, you’re going to have trouble managing blood sugar,” says Micheline Hynes, chair of the Tarrant County Food Policy Council, which focuses on access to healthy affordable foods.
Children in particular are vulnerable to a lack of access to healthy food. Eating healthy, balanced meals is essential for kids’ growth and development and for the prevention of certain health conditions, such as obesity and diabetes.
“I couldn’t figure out why our community was so sick and everywhere else wasn’t.”
Likewise, nutrition can impact cognitive development and school performance. Studies have found a correlation between performing well in school and eating three meals a day with nutritious foods such as fruits and milk. The opposite is true too—kids whose diets consist of soft drinks, fast food and candy tend to perform worse in school. This might be because high fat and high carbohydrate foods have been shown to negatively affect cognitive function, or our ability to learn and problem-solve. Combine that with chronic stress (another side effect of food insecurity) and kids who live in food deserts are not positioned for healthy development.
The growing scientific literature has helped officials in North Texas increase awareness about local food deserts, and that’s sparked efforts to improve access to healthy foods to people such as Hall and her family.
On a recent Sunday, I went to Fort Worth’s Historic Southside, where I met Hall. Save for her kids playing in the front yard of their home, the streets were quiet while cars zoomed by on busier thoroughfares. There are more than a dozen churches and at least three convenience stores, such as Hattie’s, in the neighborhood, but not a single place to get produce and other fresh foods.
Following in Hall’s footsteps, I made the trip to the Walmart in Poly. It takes two hours on foot or an hour and a half on the bus—each way. That’s not including walking to the bus stop, waiting for the bus to arrive (buses run just once an hour in Fort Worth) or the time it takes to shop.
Hall’s father, 63-year-old Jack Williams, can’t walk the 2.8 miles to the grocery store with his family. “I can’t make that journey,” he says. “If I did, it would take all day for me to get back.”
Hall spends $800 each time they shop for groceries. They can’t always carry everything in their hands, so sometimes they take a stroller to help take the load off. Because they can only go once a month—the trek is far too long and time-consuming to go more often—they stick with canned goods and things that can be frozen, such as meat. While the family also buys vegetables, they quickly go bad before the next grocery store run.
“We want to start a garden this spring to keep us from running back and forth,” Williams says.
There is not a lot of research into which inventions can best address food deserts and their impact on childhood growth and development. That leaves families who live in these communities, and the organizations and agencies determined to address the issue, trying different approaches.
Though grocery stores are seen as one solution—a new grocery store in a low-income neighborhood can improve the well-being of community members, according to a 2017 RAND Corporation study—enticing a supermarket to open in a food desert is easier said than done.
“It can be difficult for big box grocery stores,” Hynes says. “They do a lot of work figuring out where they can open and make a profit.”
In 2016, Dallas city officials tried and failed to attract a grocery store willing to bring fresh produce to southern Dallas—even with a $3 million incentive. The city had hoped a large chain would open there, but grocers cited demographics and theft as reasons for not opening in the area. City officials haven’t given up yet. In January, a new task force was formed to lure a grocery store to southern Dallas.
“People were sick. People were eating from corner stores, greasy foods. I used to catch the bus to get to Minyard and it took three hours.”
“The reality is something needs to happen before a grocery store gets there,” Salyer-Caldwell says. “If the area was profitable, it would already have a grocery store. It takes a lot of time.”
Because food deserts are not completely barren—corner stores and restaurants do exist, after all—local agencies feel that expanding what these existing facilities offer might be a better answer than opening new stores.
Linda Fulmer, executive director of Healthy Tarrant County Collaboration, which works to implement healthy retail policies and strategies, says her organization has begun surveying every store in every ZIP code to understand what opportunities already exist to provide healthy foods.
“We found a lot more opportunities for people to shop than people realize,” she says. “It may not be a one-stop grocery store, but most dollar stores have grocery staples. Frequently, they also have dairy, bread, eggs, canned meats, frozen foods. The main thing you can’t find at a dollar store is fresh produce. We’ve also found that we have discount grocery stores in areas that were previously recognized as food deserts, as well as small Hispanic grocery stores and specialty stores [like butcher shops].”
Those are bright spots, Fulmer says, that show that even a food desert might not require a full-service grocery store but rather supplements to what’s already there.
That’s why current efforts are focusing on filling in the gaps. Instead of waiting for grocery stores to want to open in areas that need them the most, Tarrant County has addressed the issue by working to grow the number of urban farms and community gardens and incentivizing corner stores to provide fresh foods.
“We worked with the city of Fort Worth to pass ordinances to make it easier to bring healthy foods into food deserts,” Salyer-Caldwell says. In 2016, for example, Fort Worth passed an amendment to the zoning ordinance to allow urban farms and the sale of produce. Hynes reports that there are now more than 30 community gardens and urban farm projects in Tarrant County. “That’s not a way the majority of people get their food, but it is a way that people can grow their own produce and give it to their neighbor and community,” she says.
The urban farm route has worked for Dallas’ Bonton neighborhood, home to what’s considered one of the most successful urban farm models in the United States. “This year alone, we’ve had visitors from 40 different countries,” says Daron Babcock, founder owner and executive director of Bonton Farms.
Several years ago, Bonton, like Fort Worth’s Historic Southside, was devoid of healthy foods.
“I couldn’t figure out why our community was so sick and everywhere else wasn’t,” Babcock says. “It kept coming back to the food access issue. Our nearest grocery store is 3 miles away, but it’s a three-hour bus ride to get there and back. Outside of someone’s birthday, it was too big of a journey.”
So Babcock planted a garden next to his house. He wanted to make access to healthy food easier for Bonton residents.
“When we finally got something to grow, we’d give it away to the people who helped work it,” he says. Turns out, urban farms were against a city ordinance. He took the issue to the city council and won, and the city even sold him a block of land.
That was in 2014. Now, Bonton Farms comprises more than 20 acres and 35 full-time employees. It sells organic vegetables, fruit, meat, milk and eggs. In November, Bonton Farms opened a market and cafe, which also hosts nutrition and cooking classes, yoga and other workshops.
Uvana Jones, 31, recently attended a cooking class about preparing salads at Bonton Farms, where she works and volunteers. Jones started volunteering at the farm two years ago, when she visited while on an afterschool program with her daughter. She remembers exactly what her community was like years ago.
“People were sick,” she says. “People were eating from corner stores, greasy foods. I used to catch the bus to get to Minyard, and it took three hours.”
Now, Jones incorporates fruits and vegetables in all of her meals. She’s lost 13 pounds since September, but she says Bonton has offered her family more than just healthier foods: a healthier lifestyle for her three kids, 6-year-old Demarcus Williams, 9-year-old Chosan Jones and 13-year-old Maya Jones.
“My kids love going to pick their own carrots and cooking them,” Jones says. “It’s a lifestyle change. It’s not a diet or a resolution. I want to make sure my kids have a long life.”
Education’s a big part of changing the health outcomes in food deserts. According to research, adding a grocery store or other means of getting healthy food doesn’t mean people will automatically start eating healthier. Families might continue to choose unhealthy options because fast food restaurants proliferate, or because grocery store produce is expensive, or because residents just might not know how to cook a certain vegetable.
Babcock says Bonton Farms hasn’t only provided food; it’s provided jobs, a place to learn and grow, and a thriving community. “There’s no economy in poor communities,” he explains. “What we would love to do is be a catalyst to build economies and solve a host of issues included in impoverished communities.”
That’s important because at least some research suggests that there’s a greater connection between income and health outcomes. In a study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes in 2017, researchers found that low-income individuals are at greater risk of heart disease, regardless of their access to healthy foods.
Officials and advocates across North Texas hope to address these multifaceted challenges—even if, for now, they have to start small.
There have been failed attempts: Last summer, a market and bistro opened to serve Fort Worth’s east side, part of which is also considered a food desert by the USDA. But the place has already closed.
“It’s a lifestyle change. It’s not a diet or a resolution. I want to make sure my kids have a long life.”
But on the other side of Interstate 30, in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood, a corner store called Ramey Market now supplies fresh foods and vegetables. It’s an example of how the county is working with what they have. Hynes hope it becomes a model for other corner stores, like Hattie’s.
Meanwhile, Salyer-Caldwell says she is hoping to work on an updated iteration of the 2013 study that looked at access to healthy foods. But without funding this time, the effort will be volunteer-driven.
“We hope that by raising awareness more and more people get involved,” she says.