City Ready to Spend Millions To Make Food Deserts Bloom, But Will It Work?

One day in November 2014, Anga Sanders had a revelation when she walked into an Albertson’s at Mckinney and Lemmon Avenues.  She stopped in her tracks, staring at the salad bar just a few yards within the entrance of the store — the fresh greens, the tomatoes, bell peppers, bacon bits, even pineapple toppings — and realized that there was absolutely nothing like this south of the Trinity River.

Sanders, who lives near Justin F. Kimball High School in Oak Cliff, has lived in south Dallas since 1980, when she came from east Texas to attend SMU. For years, she’s been traveling the nearly 30 minutes it takes to get to this location, now a Sun Fresh Market, because grocery stores are nonexistent near her neighborhood.

The term “food desert” became popular in the late '90s and early 2000s, and they have been common in parts of southern and western Dallas before there was a chic term for it.  For the U.S. Department of Agriculture to qualify some place as a “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

The majority of food deserts within the city of Dallas are in the south, despite the fact the populations of the northern and southern sector are about 50-50. There are incredibly few high-quality, but not necessarily high-end grocery store options (think Albertson’s caliber) in the southern sector of the city: There are three Minyard Food Stores, one Kroger and one Tom Thumb. But that’s about it.

Southern Dallas' food options are primarily limited to Save-a-Lots, Family Dollar and Dollar General stores, convenience stores and gas stations.
In contrast, there are six Krogers, four Minyard Sun Fresh Markets (the nicer version of Minyard Food Stores), and 11 Tom Thumbs in the northern sector, according to the food locators on each individual company’s website.

After her realization in 2014, Sanders started a small, but determined grassroots organization called FEED Oak Cliff. Since then, they have been reaching out to quality grocers and trying to tempt them to come to Oak Cliff.
However, persuading grocers to come to Oak Cliff has been as difficult as “climbing Mount Everest in flip-flops,” Sanders says.  

“They all have a variety of excuses—I won’t call them reasons,” Sanders says. “The first one is population density. And I say OK, that’s the most legitimate thing because if you don't have enough people to serve the needs of the corporation, then I understand that that’s a legitimate concern. What they don’t seem to realize though, is if you are the only game in town, you can’t just draw a circle one mile from whatever your locus point is and say okay, we are gonna look at population density in this circle. If you're the only game in town you're going to draw people from way outside that circle.”

The second reason Sanders says grocers always cite is that southern Dallas is not the right demographic and "we all know what that means," Sanders says. She thinks these excuses are a way to avoid saying the real reason: their perception of southern Dallas as a poverty-stricken, dangerous area. But her area of southern Dallas, like many other parts of the southern sector, is very diverse, and has many middle to upper-middle income residents.

“They're politically correct enough not to say it’s the reputation or the misperception of Oak Cliff that they're having — the perception, and a very erroneous one, of Oak Cliff as high-crime, low-income, populated by thugs and uneducated people,” Sanders says. “Well, my community, which is Kiest Forest, and the 10 communities surrounding it, couldn't be further from the truth. It’s the Oak Cliff that nobody knows about or claims not to know about.”

Last week, city council announced $3 million in funding “to assist in development and/or location of one or more high quality grocery stores … within or adjacent to a southern Dallas food desert” to target areas like Sanders' neighborhood. The stores must be at least 25,000 square feet and “high quality” refers to a national retailer like Albertson’s or Kroger. 

However, funding for this type of project has always been available through Chapter 380 and 381 economic development grants, which are part of the Local Government Code. This Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) is unique in that it is the first time City Council has shown a true commitment to combating food deserts in southern Dallas.

Thomas, who serves on the Economic Development committee, was a positive vote in the unanimous support for passing the NOFA.

He, too, cited the perception Sanders spoke of as the largest reason operators have not been willing to invest in the southern sector. He thinks the NOFA is a step in the right direction, but not a solution to the issue as a whole.

“I think having real funding on the table eliminates a lot of excuses that potential grocery store operators or developers use when we talk about why they wouldn't come to southern Dallas and open an operating grocery store,” says Thomas. “The hope is that it can serve as an anchor that will encourage other retailers to open stores in the same center.”

Council member Philip Kingston of District 14, on the other hand, isn’t convinced the project will do much at all. For the last year he’s been working on a more comprehensive development idea that incorporates both a retail and affordable housing component. He believes this type of model is what can make long-term change.

“Every grocery operator in the world that has any sophistication knows that if they came to Dallas and said they wanna build a store in the southern part of town, it was already obvious that Dallas would pay at least $3 million for that,” says Kingston. “So I think it’s a little anticlimactic. I mean yeah, let’s congratulate ourselves for showing we’re serious about addressing food deserts in southern Dallas, but $3 million ain’t gonna do it because operators already knew that that amount of money was available.

The problem with a one-time subsidy, Kingston says, is that it doesn’t address the long-term economic viability of the store. His plan incorporates finding land the city already owns, and either working in an affordable housing component or subsidizing the construction as much as possible. The other piece is finding an operator that is union-friendly and, in partnership with the Dallas AFL-CIO Council, trains a localized workforce that will be ready to go as soon as the store is built.

“This does two things: They’re gonna find people geographically proximate to the site, so you're getting local employment effects and the union would handle training those people up so they walk in on day one trained,” Kingston says. “So the operator basically gets free training of its work force, the union gets new members and the city of Dallas gets local employment effects which is something we’re usually worried about because we can’t control who employers hire and where those people live. So thats kind of the three legged stool we’re trying to make stand up.”

The genesis of the idea came at the opening of the Whole Foods in Uptown, where Kingston and Thomas talked about how Thomas could get something like this in his own district.

“We've gotta get an operator that’s willing to take the risk, that’s willing to be a development partner with the city of Dallas and that’s willing to work on this very specific problem that’s holding back the further development of our neighborhoods down there,” Kingston says. “We've got some wonderful neighborhoods down there, but it doesn't matter how wonderful those neighborhoods are, how wonderful those people are, if they have to drive so far to get to a grocery store. It just devalues their quality of life and we shouldn't put up with that.”

Both Council member Erik Wilson, of District 8, and Thomas understand the NOFA will not be a quick fix, but given the difficulty they’ve had so far in securing any operators in southern Dallas due to the reputation of the area, they feel the NOFA is a positive step.

“It’s a good start as long as its supplemented with development that will help sustain a grocery store as well as enhance the community,” says Wilson. “I don't think it’s the magic bullet if it doesn't have the infrastructure to support what the retailers are looking for in terms of having income, good housing values. It needs to include education, etc. There’s just been a reluctance to come in to the area because the perception is the income isn't there, or the perception of crime. But we have some of the lowest crime areas and the city is dealing with a past history of misconceptions about southern Dallas being an area that’s undesirable. As far as I know, everyone who lives in southern Dallas has to eat and they have to be able to have equality and affordable food just like everyone else.”

In Wilson’s district, an effort of this kind is already in the works. A Save-a-lot is expected to open in September in the Highland Hills area, which is not a target-area for this particular NOFA, but is a vast food desert.

In the area where the Save-a-lot is being built, there is a Family Dollar, a Hi!-Mart gas station, a donut shop, and an Ingram’s Gas & More across the street.

Ronald Scott, who lives in the apartment complex behind the Hi!-Mart, thinks the Save-a-lot will certainly help, but alone will not make a big difference for the people in the area.

“They just need more stuff that people actually need,” Scott says. “They've got Family Dollar, but they need grocery stores, clothing stores, shopping centers, things like that.”

“It’d make things a whole lot better for a lot of people,” says his son, Joshua, 19, who had gone with his father to the Hi!-Mart to put gas in the car and grab some groceries. “There are no jobs over here.”

“Shoot, people need to go 40, 50 miles, all the way to north Dallas (for work),” Scott says.

Access to quality, healthy food is one of the most important issues for the residents of southern Dallas, says Thomas. And it’s clear there is a distinct difference of experience for the residents south of the Trinity versus those north of it.

“My personal opinion is that the grocery store situation in the southern sector is an injustice,” says Sanders. “It’s fifty percent of the geographical area of the city of Dallas, but the amenities that are commonplace north of the Trinity are nonexistent south of the Trinity and there’s no legitimate reason that situation should exist. I'm disturbed that it would take this (NOFA) to get some grocer’s attention, but I'm happy the city has finally stepped up to make it happen.”
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