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Council OKs ordinance to help bring grocery stores to food deserts

Good.

Supermarkets now can sell beer and wine next to schools and churches, an exemption to city regulations Houston City Council granted unanimously Wednesday, hoping to encourage grocers to locate in neighborhoods that lack access to fresh, healthy food.

These so-called “food deserts” are common in Houston, typically in poor areas such as Third Ward and Fifth Ward that also tend to have a high concentration of churches. Without the rule change, grocers – which industry experts say must offer beer and wine to be competitive – could not operate within 300 feet of churches and most private schools, or within 1,000 feet of public schools.

Councilman Stephen Costello, who helped lead efforts to pass the exemption and long has worked on the food desert issue, said an independent grocer has agreed to open a 20,000-square-foot store in south Houston, and said he has meetings scheduled soon with four large grocery chains.

“We’re talking to them about how the city can help them come into these under-served areas because, obviously, they’re taking a risk. There’s a reason they’re not there in the first place,” Costello said. “This item was one of the last variables we were trying to overcome. We’re figuring out ways to try to peel back the onion to get them to come into these areas.”

[...]

The language passed Wednesday defines a grocery store as covering at least 10,000 square feet of floor space, and excludes businesses that allow alcoholic drinks to be consumed on site and those that derive more than 25 percent of their gross receipts from booze sales.

Jane West, of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, said members of the civic club coalition were satisfied with the amended language. Still, West said the impact of the change may be limited.

“I hope it does, but I’m very skeptical it will actually provide the benefit it’s promised to provide,” she said. “To me, the risk is they’re just going to encourage more of the large convenience stores, the kind of stores they want to eliminate.”

As I said when this first came up, I didn’t understand the restriction on alcohol sales near churches. Be that as it may, this strikes me as a sensible approach, one that will still keep bars and liquor stores out of the affected areas. As to whether or not it will actually provide the promised benefit, the proof will be in whether or not any new grocery stores get built in places that had previously lacked them. CM Costello says one is in hand, and we’ll see when that announcement happens, and if any others follow it. Finally, for those of you that scoff at the whole notion of “food deserts” in the first place, just think of this as the city loosening some regulations in order to encourage new businesses. Does that make it feel better? Texpatriate has more.

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6 Comments

  1. Rich says:

    But must they sell the alcohol at all? Around here, anything which goes into the food desert area must request a special liquor license, even if they normally have it. (Walgreens, frex)

    But Walgreens is a bad choice for food, at .99/banana. So a downtown grocer was convinced to bring in a semi set up to do retail sales out of, and sell at what the closest grocery store charges for produce, not what the high-end stores charge. (Downtown he charges the higher prices.) The semi is there twice or 3 times a week.

    I’m just whinging – eliminating food deserts is good, even if alcohol is also there.

  2. Mainstream says:

    I have never been convinced there really are food deserts. I think there are safety and poverty and infrastructure deserts into which businesses are reluctant to invest, based on free market principles. I hope to be surprised, to learn after 10 years that residents near these new markets are healthier and eating more salads, but I have my doubts.

  3. Rich, as I understand it, it’s a matter of margins. Grocery stores have low margins, but beer and wine are high-margin items. Having them for sale makes grocery stores more viable.

    Mainstream, I think this ordinance was a good idea on its own merits. I too hope it has a positive benefit on people’s health, but I’d have supported the idea regardless.

  4. Ross says:

    This is a much better option than spending tax dollars to subsidize a grocery store.

  5. Bayard Rustin says:

    Incentives were used to bring Randall’s to Midtown. Now I understand it’s the chain’s busiest store. Maybe market forces aren’t always all knowing and all wise.

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