South Dallas’ food desert – understanding why it exists may hold its solution

Food deserts have potential if you look beyond the immediate challenges and identify ways to minimize risk

June 22, 2020
  • According to the USDA, food deserts are places where people have limited access to healthy and affordable food, the poverty rate is greater than 20%, and a third of the population are more than 1 mile from a major grocer.

  • Besides limited supermarkets and large grocers, these areas often lack vehicle availability and adequate public transit, making it difficult for residents to reach options elsewhere.

  • The USDA, estimates that 6,500 census tracts in the U.S. are food deserts and included South Dallas in that list. 

  • South Dallas’ food desert roots are easy to discern – population is thin and static. Only 11,600 households live there, unchanged from 2000. Incomes are also low. The $42,000 average compares to $96,000 in DFW – with 60% earning less than $35,000.

  • Even more important, highways built to accommodate post WWII growth decimated the neighborhood.  I-45 divided it in half and I-30 isolated it from CBD jobs. The neighborhood is also cut off south and east by the Trinity River forest.

  • While some food shopping takes place outside South Dallas, much is at small neighborhood markets and convenience stores, which is what makes the area a true food desert.

  • Because of high pricing and limited options, residents spend disproportionately on less nutritious basics.  Those in the bottom 20-30% income-bands pay 14-16% of their income on groceries – compared to 6% for the average US consumer.

  • Despite these challenges, residents generate $58 million in grocery spending – sufficient to support 3 full-scale grocers.

  • These ingrained food desert dynamics will not change in South Dallas without public support.  Rather than a direct subsidy that’s has been tried, a public-private “partnership” with the owner | operator may be a solution.

  • One idea may be to create a cushion to support a grocer at “break-even”.  Engineered as a “community good” from both the public and private sides – this could seed the area and limit the early sales risk to the operator, while potentially creating a more affordable | healthy alternative for residents.