A city ordinance intended to keep alcohol sales at a distance from schools and churches could be relaxed for grocery stores in an effort to alleviate some of the so-called “food deserts” that plague poorer neighborhoods across Houston.
The City Council is expected to take up the proposed revisions this week in hopes of removing one of the many barriers keeping Houston’s struggling neighborhoods from landing large groceries, which experts say must offer beer and wine to be competitive.
The idea is to make more locations available for supermarkets in areas where residents lack access to fresh, healthy foods. Studies have linked food deserts to diet-related diseases, as well as higher food prices for the residents in such areas.
University of Houston researchers have estimated 26 percent of Harris County residents, most in low-income areas, lack access to healthy food, slightly above the national average.
One of those areas is Houston’s Fifth Ward. The neighborhood just northeast of downtown is home to scores of stray dogs, liquor stores, abandoned buildings, illegal dump sites strewn with tires, and many churches. The historic neighborhood is not home to a large grocery store that stocks what residents consider reliably good, fresh produce.
A city ordinance currently prohibits the sale of alcohol within 300 feet of churches, public hospitals and most private schools, and within 1,000 feet of public schools and some private schools.
In Fifth Ward, these restrictions mean full-size groceries cannot build on many of the tracts large enough to hold them, since churches often sit right across the street.
“To have a grocery store with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, everything, it would attract people to move into the area,” Fifth Ward civic activist Kathy Blueford-Daniels said. “It would have a positive impact on the community because people wouldn’t have to travel so far. A lot of the people here still ride buses.”
Many of the multi-acre sites suitable for a grocery store are on major thoroughfares, precisely where churches and schools tend to locate, said Councilman Stephen Costello, who has worked on the food desert problem.
“We started plotting out all the areas we wanted to focus on and started plotting where the churches and schools were and realized, ‘Wow, we’re limiting exactly where we can put these stores,’ ” Costello said. “Some of these grocery stores, a small part of their sales is going to be alcohol, it’s just a part of their business plan. We had to figure out a way that, if we allow for the encroachment, it’s only for grocery stores that predominantly sell nothing but food.”
Maybe it’s because I’m not particularly religious, but I don’t quite get the restriction on alcohol sales near churches. I get it for schools, but for churches that seems more like a Prohibition-era remnant of official disapproval rather than a piece of coherent public policy. It’s not a huge deal, but this sort of restrictions should not in any way impede the goal of enabling grocery stores to be built in neighborhoods that really need them. I’m sure Council will figure it out.