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One less food desert

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With high hopes of more to come, Mayor Annise Parker, Council Members Stephen Costello and Dwight Boykins, the Houston Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and others broke ground on the first project to target a Houston food desert. With financial assistance from the city, Pyburn’s owner John Vuong is building a first-class grocery store to serve South Union and surrounding neighborhoods. The store is scheduled to open the first quarter of 2015.

“An estimated two-thirds of Houstonians are overweight or obese and a high percentage of them live in food deserts with no access to fresh food,” said Mayor Parker. “This forces families in these areas to rely on unhealthy processed or fatty foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants. I am excited that we are able to take the first step to address this problem that impacts the overall health of our residents and am confident there will be additional opportunities for grocery stores in other food desert areas in Houston.”

“Everyone should have access to fresh food, no matter the zip code,” said council member Costello. “I am grateful to the Vuongs for recognizing the need and reconfirming their commitment to serving the community. Pyburn’s will not only provide fresh meat and produce to South Union, but will also create jobs for our city’s youth and spur economic development in an area ripe for more industry.”

Vuong and his family own and operate 11 stores, nine of which are located in Houston. They have extensive experience operating in low to moderate income areas. The new venture, which must create a minimum of 25 jobs, will be the next generation of the company’s stores, named Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods. The funding agreement with the city requires that the store be designed to provide customers with a shopping experience equal to that of grocery stores in high income areas of Houston. In addition, there is room at the site for additional complementary development. The loan agreement prohibits uses inconsistent with community revitalization, such as liquor stores and pay-day loan establishments.

“My family purchased the land at Scott and Corder over eight years ago and this opportunity to partner with the City of Houston allows us to realize our dream of bringing healthy fresh food choices to South Union and the surrounding communities,” said Voung. “We are humbled by this opportunity to invest, serve and bring over 25 new jobs to this community.”

Council member Dwight Boykins is excited the new store will be located in his council district. “As a child growing up on welfare, my walk to school took me by this site,” said Boykins. “I am thankful to the mayor, the Voung family and all the other people who worked so hard to secure this opportunity for my community.”

“Everyone deserves the opportunity to purchase healthy food for their family,” said Yael Lehmann, Executive Director of The Food Trust. “We applaud this initiative by the City of Houston to increase access to grocery stores in underserved areas,” said.”

The City is providing a performance-based loan of $1.7 million for predevelopment, land acquisition, construction and equipment. The total project cost is estimated to be $3.7 million. Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds awarded to the Houston Redevelopment Authority for economic development projects will be used for the project. Funding is available for additional projects and HRA will work with potential partners on a case-by-case basis to determine eligibility for building or revitalizing grocery stores in food desert areas.

To combat food deserts in Houston, which has fewer grocery stores per capita than most large cities in the country, the Mayor, partnering with Council Member Costello, The Food Trust and Children At Risk, created the Houston Grocery Access Task Force in 2011. At the end of 2012, the Task Force issued their report, Roadmap for Encouraging Grocery Development in Houston and Texas. Economic development tools, such as performance-based loans, were highlighted as key opportunities to increasing access to fresh food. The report can be accessed here.

The Chron story is here. We first heard about this proposal in December. Council passed an update to its ordinance about the minimum distance a retailer that sells beer and wine must be from schools and churches in January to allow supermarkets to be built in some places where they would otherwise have been forbidden. Here’s a Google map link to where this Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods is going up. According to CultureMap, the closest existing grocery store is an HEB at Scott and Old Spanish Trail 1.2 miles away. That’s not that far, but if you live south of Corder it could get to be a bit of a hike, especially if you depend on public transportation. Be that as it may, I think it’s a good thing to encourage this kind of development in parts of the city that don’t have it regardless of whether there are any associated health benefits to it. I do hope someone is going to follow up with a study, however, because if there really are health benefits we as a country should pursue this kind of development more aggressively, and if there aren’t we should at least be careful to not make dishonest arguments in favor of it.

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