The city of Dallas in the summer of 2016 offered $3 million to anyone who would open at least one grocery store and preferably more to eliminate a sprawling food desert in south Dallas, an area dotted by impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods.
That offer so far has gone begging, but the chronic problem of residents having few options for buying nutritious food at reasonable prices continues to generate concern.
About a dozen community leaders and representatives of organizations committed to finding a solution traveled Friday to Jubilee Food Market at North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue in Waco. The 6,000-square-foot grocery store represents the vision of Mission Waco executive director Jimmy Dorrell and residents of a North Waco neighborhood living in a food desert of their own.
“I was more than impressed. I was inspired,” said Owen Lynch, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University and a senior research fellow at the Hunter and Stephanie Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity, whose causes include fighting poverty.
“What I was most struck by was ownership of this project by the community, people from all over buying ‘shares’ to raise money to make it happen,” Lynch said. “Jubilee Food Market demonstrates that you can provide a high-quality product — fresh, healthy food — as an alternative to sugary products, lottery tickets and cigarettes.”
Mission Waco and the neighborhood raised between $500,000 and $1 million in private donations, corporate gifts, and donated or reduced-cost labor and materials to convert a building that housed a Safeway store decades ago into a grocery selling meat, fresh produce, canned goods and household items.
Crews also have installed an aquaponics system adjacent to the grocery store. This allows the growing of leafy greens using nutrients supplied by fish or aquatic animals.
The system cost about $62,000, Dorrell said, not counting installation of a 36-by-72-foot greenhouse. Mission Waco also has arranged for the installation of a rainwater catchment system and solar panels. A commercial composter built in Malaysia will arrive this week from Houston, and mid-June is the target date for putting it to use, Dorrell said in an email message.
“The aquaponics system is slow starting because we have to create the ecosystem,” Dorrell said. “We’re actually growing algae now before the first planting. It takes months for the PH factor in the water to stabilize for optimum growth. The fish and crawfish are added months later, though we will have some plants growing.”
Anga Sanders, founder and director of Feed Oak Cliff, said she “would love to replicate the Jubilee model several times over.”
“I had visited the store a month or so ago, and this time I wanted to bring a larger group,” Sanders said. “We have tried to recruit grocery stores to our area, and the process has been frustrating. We realized we are going to have to expand our method of accomplishing our goal, and we wanted to find out the back story of a nonprofit forming a grocery store. Jimmy Dorrell has quite the story to tell and was very gracious about meeting with us.”
She said she agreed with Dorrell’s assessment “that people who are part of the problem must be part of the solution,” and that community input is vital to the success of such an undertaking.
“If you plop something down and say, ‘This is a great gift from the goodness of our heart,’ you will be told to take a hike,” she said. “If I didn’t know this store was created by a nonprofit, I would think it is a typical grocery store. It is all anyone would want, unless your preference is a 50,000-square-foot superstore with a Starbucks, a floral department and a deli inside.”
‘Stores are expensive’
She added, “Grocery stores are expensive, and the city of Dallas’ offer of $3 million may sound like a drop in the bucket to some of these chains. The official deadline for receiving the money, which was called a Notice of Funds Availability, has expired. But the city has said if it can find someone willing to get involved in such a project, it will still make the money available.”
Froswa Booker-Drew, director of community affairs and strategic alliances for the State Fair of Texas, said some of those attending the meeting with Dorrell on Friday were representing organizations that could provide funding to assist with launching a grocery.
“I was one of those who came down about a month ago, but we wanted more stakeholders this time who might catch the vision,” she said. “We look at what Jimmy has done here and see it as the framework for what we could do in Dallas.”
She said the Fair Park area of Dallas is not without resources to help those desiring fresh fruit and vegetables. She said the Big Tex Urban Farm, for example, makes hundreds of pallets loaded with fruits and vegetables available to the community.
“But the whole ecosystem that Jimmy Dorrell has set up is amazing,” she said. “He is so invested in that community and so well-respected. It takes having that kind of leader to drive the process. The other piece of the puzzle is that the community was willing to invest as well. So many partners got involved. When you can get Wal-Mart and H-E-B to provide funding, which they did, that is impressive. And I think we can do the same.”
Lynch, the SMU professor, said much of Dallas’ entire southern sector is considered a food desert, meaning a population already strapped for disposable income must travel farther to shop.
“If they are using public transportation, getting groceries means a three-hour round trip,” Lynch said, adding that residents in low-income areas spend a larger percentage of their income on groceries.
“Dallas is the third-fastest-growing city in the country, but it has 38 percent of its children living in poverty,” he said. “We’re growing faster than most, but so is the poor population.”