The city of Austin should build grocery stores

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The vacant tract of land in North-Central Austin that will likely become the site of a new Major League Soccer stadium has also been considered as a potential site for subsidized housing. While one person on Twitter unhelpfully suggested that the Domain was too pretty for poor people to live near, another offered a more reasonable point against using the site for affordable housing: the closest grocery store is 2 miles away.

I have to admit, I assumed there was a grocery store at the Domain, or at least nearby. That apparently is not the case. And the nearest one is Whole Foods, which despite offering a far more affordable almond butter than some other local grocers, is not cheap.

Food deserts are a problem. What’s the point of an industrialized society if it can’t provide easy access to the most basic necessity: food? Food deserts condemn millions to malnutrition, not necessarily in terms of calories but in terms of quality nutrients. It’s really hard to eat well when the only nearby grocery outlet is a gas station. The food you get there is not only crap nutritionally, but it’s overpriced. A lack of quality groceries also probably leads people to resort to eating out, which typically presents the same problems in terms of nutrition and affordability.

There have been a number of initiatives around the country, including some backed by the federal government, to address food deserts. But from my reading, all of these have merely nibbled around the problem. For instance, here are some of the efforts that the Obama administration championed with an $800,000 grant in 2016:

  • The Baltimore Public Markets Corporation in Baltimore, Maryland, plans to revitalize Avenue Market in the distressed Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood to increase access to healthy food and promote economic development.
  • Passaic, New Jersey, will receive technical assistance to strengthen business partnerships in the Eastside neighborhood’s ethnic restaurant and food service enclave so those local businesses can better market and connect themselves with the area’s redevelopment projects.
  • Dallas, Texas, will receive technical assistance to form a local food branding campaign and an alliance of garden and farm enthusiasts to build public awareness, community cohesion, and relationships between growers and local businesses and help community gardens share expertise and increase the size and variety of their yields.

That’s all well and good, but the only fool-proof solution to urban food deserts that I can think of is for local governments to develop their own grocery stores in areas that the market isn’t currently serving.

Does that sound like a radical solution? It shouldn’t. How is it different than, say, public transportation or a municipal utility? Both require significant upfront capital costs (financed by issuing debt) that would be recovered by paying customers.

I first proposed the idea to Council Member Delia Garza in an interview a few months ago.

Much of the district is considered a “food desert” because of a scarcity of grocery stores; many of Garza’s constituents drive as far away as Bastrop for groceries. Garza isn’t sure what the solution to the problem is, but she has explored ways for the city to collaborate with nonprofits or for-profit businesses to get a grocery store in the area.

She’s open to the city opening and operating a store on its own, although she’s unsure of whether that’s feasible: “I don’t know how we could become a grocery store.”

The most obvious challenge to the proposal is that the city might not be able to break even running the store and could end up saddled with an enterprise that is losing money. After all, if the private sector has deemed an area unprofitable, how can the public sector expect to do any better?

However, I don’t think that a major chain’s avoidance of a certain area implies that a store there would necessarily be unprofitable, but rather that the profit potential there is lower than in a wealthier part of the city. Second, a public grocery store’s goal would not be to turn a profit, but simply to break even.

The other major challenge to starting a public grocery store would be the opposition from existing private grocery stores. Just like the insurance lobby, they would describe the “public option” as an existential threat to their businesses. It would be at that point that the city could ask one of them to either build a store in a food desert or shut up.

Finally, there’s public opinion. I remember floating this idea to a friend a while back, and she immediately expressed concerns that the food at a government-run grocer would be lower quality. I completely disagree. I would have much more faith in the quality of food selected by Austin public employees than whatever a multi-billion dollar corporation is choosing based on profit models.

The only thing I’d worry about would be pressure from the Portlandia crowd to bar perfectly healthy products that are genetically modified or that aren’t certified organic, but I am relatively confident, particularly now that the 10-1 Council has made it much harder to assemble a Birkenstock majority on the dais, that wiser voices would prevail in favor of science and affordability.

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