Thursday, June 28, 2007

A place to shop for supper. . .

I've said it before, but it seems no one is listening, at least not here in Dallas.

So, I'll keep saying it: inner city neighborhoods and communities need high-quality, retail grocery shopping opportunities.

We need nice, real, grocery stores--you know, supermarkets--like every other part of the city enjoys.

And, we need them now, not later! Sounds fairly mundane, doesn't it? Actually, to the people who put up with the current situation, it is not.

It is very clear to me that any community truly concerned about health improvement and public health outcome disparities will get busy building accessible, quality grocery markets in the low-income parts of town.

Want to cut into public health epidemics like obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes? then make nutritious food products readily available to everyone.

Robert K. Ross, MD, President and CEO of The California Endowment, and Angela Glover Blackwell, Founder and CEO of PolicyLink, put it this way,

"There is an emerging consensus among researchers and practitioners that conditions in the communities where people live--from local economic opportunities, to social interactions with neighbors, to the physical environment, to services such as local stores where people can buy healthy food--all affect health" (Healthy Food, Healthy Communities: Improving Access and Opportunities Through Food Retailing, Fall 2005, page 1).

The current crisis evidenced by our nation's growing "grocery gap," or the widening access disparity between more economically viable communities and low-income neighborhoods when it comes to the availability of good grocery options, has been brewing since the 1960s.

With the advent of middle-class, largely "white flight" from older, central city neighborhoods, developers and city planners turned their attention and almost all of their resources to suburbs, leaving low-income families to struggle with transportation challenges and limited, convenient food purchasing options.

Here are a few of the most important facts that I gleaned from the report referenced above:

1) Poor families endure poor diets because they lack access to places that sell decent quality, nutritious foods at an affordable price.

2) Poor folks are forced to opt for food products at corner groceries where prices are high, selection is limited and ending in diets high in fat, sugar and calories.

3) Middle and upper income communities in Los Angeles County have 2.3 times as many supermarkets per capita as low-income communities; predominately white communities offer 3.2 times as many supermarkets as predominately black neighborhoods and 1.7 times as many as predominately Hispanic communities. Other regional and national studies confirm similar findings for other parts of the country.

4) Corner grocery stores that dot the inner city can be as much as 49% higher than supermarkets, while offering a poorer selection of food products--very little meat and fresh produce, mostly processed and canned foods.

5) African Americans living in proximity to at least one supermarket are more likely to meet suggested dietary guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption and for fat intake than their peers who live in neighborhoods without supermarkets.

6) New grocery supermarkets contribute to the overall economic health of neighborhoods and very often serve as catalysts and anchors for further community renewal.

7) Traditional market analysis typically undervalue inner city neighborhoods and their economic potential. National data cuts against inner city economic and retail development, whereas more careful local market analysis tends to "prove up" the viability of urban markets.

8) A classic mistake of much market analysis is to focus on average household income rather than total area income. In countless cases, total area income is shocking to researchers who dig more deeply into the community they are analyzing.

9) Low-income, inner city neighborhoods actually present major advantages to retail developers who will take the time to learn. These include density of purchasing power, limited competition, and an available labor force.

10) Most of the time we fail to recognize the "double bottom line" inherent in community-business partnerships. It is very possible to achieve a healthy financial return on investment and realize sustainable and substantial community benefit.

More on grocery stores coming soon. . .


Anonymous said...

Very true. It has dawned on me that this was my number one complaint while living in Oak Cliff for a short while. There was not an affordable grocery store in sight. The closest was an Albertsons which we all know is extremely high. I selfishly felt sorry for myself and didn't even think of the rest of the community who have lived there for a lot longer then I. How do we bring quality grocery stores into lower income areas? Is the market for fresh produce such that we can make it affordable?

Michael Davis said...


In Dallas District 4, part of Dwaine Caraway's platform is to bring better grocery stores/supermarkets to his area.

We are working on that. Dwaine realizes that such stores are needed.

This is great information. Several other states have been successful when approaching this topic. Better markets are an absolute necessity in inner cities.

Larry James said...

Thanks, Michael. Check out the websites for the report. It is interesting and we are working on a strategy to "wedge" markets into low-income neighborhoods by absorbing some of the risk to "prove up" the viability to retailers. I'd love to get with you sometime soon to talk on this and lots more!

owldog1 said...

I am just talking out loud here about business side. I agree ALL neighborhoods need affordable grocery stores with healthy food. Reality- even if the city gives the business a financial incentive for building where the "losses" out number the profit or even breaking even. Look at the gigantic chain Wal-Mart market grocery. Even they won't build there because of the insurance risk and cost.

The neighborhood would have to get together with the "owners" and (dirty word) INSURANCE/RISK MANAGERS to try and convince them there would not be lots of "claims"

When insurance is giving a "grocery chain" a quote they look at locations. Your rate $1,000,000 a year oh wait you have a store in a "bad neighborhood" that history shows would make claims, okay with that one store location now your premium is $2,000,000.

Fair - No Reality - Yes

How do we change that? We have to get lots of people on board and the neighbors that want it and would help it succeed monitor themselves and convince the "money" people they will.

Larry James said...

Owldog, thanks for the post.

You raise some of the key points that face developers. All the success stories involve heavy neighborhood involvement and lots of advance work.

An overarching reality can be summed up as "pay me now or pay me later." The benefits far outweigh the risks in terms of community health and savings and in terms of economic development. The key is someone has to be willing to take the risk. It is working everywhere groups are willing to do so.

Politics & Culture said...

I have a friend who works in upper management with a nationwide grocery chain. I had noticed the absence of supermarkets in a certain city, and I asked him about it.

He said that they tried (in that particular city) a few years ago, but that the huge losses (theft, vandalism, etc.) caused them to close all the stores.

What can a community do to prove to a company that they won't trash and loot a store once it moves in (as happened in the case above)? After all, supermarkets are not social agencies -- they are in business to make a profit.

Justin said...

This would have been my point as well.

I know lots of people in the inner city in Memphis will jump out in front of cars in order to try and get a lawsuit for money. I assume they do the same things at retail stores, not to mention the theft that occurs.

This is a big problem, and so even if the neighborhood is one that could support such retail establishments, if the store can't afford the insurance, or if theft cuts into profit too much, they just won't put a business there.

Larry, you talk alot about how there are powers that hold people in poverty, and I agree with you. But at some level, no matter what you do, don't folks need to step up and get rid of the people that cause many of their problems... like gangs, panhandlers, thieves, etc?

Maybe impoverished communities need leaders telling them those things rather than telling them the government can solve all their problems? I realize my bias is showing here, but even thought government can do good, it seems like at some level, no matter what government does, the people have to decide to do better.

owldog1 said...


Pay now or pay later?? Yes for government and social agencies not for an owner/manager of a grocery store. They do not look at "people not being healthy and needing medical treatment" as his responsibility to pay now or later. Maybe if they were invited to a "neighborhood development meeting" with lots of people that live in the community saying they will support the store and not take advantage ie: making frivolous claims and let children steal, they would agree to locate in an existing empty building for a "trial period"

Just an idea.

dmowen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larry James said...

Check out the report and the footnotes that support the research and guide more investigation. It can be done but there must be lots of prep work, community buy-in and support for the retailers. We have a plan to bring a hybrid to a poor neighborhood--part charity, part retail at good prices.

As for your concerns, Justin, I agree that communities must take responsibility--person by person--for what happens in a neighborhood. Grocery store development often does and should spur on this sort of community maturity and responsibility.

That said, individuals can't stand against drug dealers, gangs and a number of other negative forces without support from police, code enforcement and other public resources. Poverty is a force that injects factors beyond the control of individuals.

Cities put billions into upscale deals every year. They justify such subsidies in economic and social terms as "return on investment."

We can make this work if we have a team approach.

dmowen said...

Are there any maps showing grocery store distribution in the Dallas area so we have a better idea of what the problem looks like? Near UT Southwestern/Parkland hospital there are lots of low income neighborhoods, but there does not seem to be a shortage of grocery stores as far as I can tell.

Another idea for supplementing fresh fruits and vegetables- I recently moved to Seattle and have learned about a community gardening program here called P-patch. According to their website, the program supplies low income communities with over 7 tons of fresh produce annually. It would be cool to see a similar program started in Dallas. It could also provide a mechanism for people in the suburbs who desire to do something "hands on" to help low income communities- they could grow vegetables in their backyard. This produce could be donated to a co-op to be sold at low prices in a farmers market staffed by and serving a low income area.

Larry James said...

dmowen, thanks for your post. My focus is South Dallas and the Southern Sector. I know of no comprehensive grocery store map, but that would be a great resource to develop.

The "farmers market" notion is one that is growing, with the community garden being a special, local expression of the same. Some cities have groups working out of mobile produce trucks that come to neighborhoods with needed fruit and produce. Thanks for bringing that into the discussion.