Migrating Grocery Stores Leave Food Deserts In Central Waco

Jul 25, 2014

Central Waco doesn’t have many grocery stores. Over the past year, three major grocery stores have shut their doors in Waco. It’s part of a trend of grocery stores moving out of neighborhoods and into larger facilities where they can access more customers.

Hector Devora runs a car stereo shop at 25th and Bosque, just across the street from the old Super Plaza grocery store in Sanger Heights. The Super Plaza closed earlier this year and Devora says he’s gotta drive to La Michoacana at Bosque and Valley Mills to get the ingredients he needs.

"...like Mexican ingredients or meat also they got bread and food! I used to go over there," Devora said.

Same thing for Lourdes Osequera. She works at a dessert shop called La Nueva Michoacana just down 25th street. She liked Super Plaza because it was in her neighborhood.

"It was close more close than other stores," Osquera said. "I have to drive a little bit more."

Super Plaza is one of three grocery stores that have closed in Waco over the last year—along with the HEB on 12th street near Baylor and the HEB on Valley Mills by Floyd Casey stadium. These grocery stores have left behind what the USDA calls “food deserts”—areas where a substantial number of residents don’t have access to a large grocery store.

According to a preliminary Baylor University study released earlier this year, food deserts span across large portions of Waco, the largest of which runs through East Waco into Bellmead and Lacy Lakeview.

Shamethia Webb is a regional director at Baylor’s Texas Hunger Initiative. She says when there aren’t grocery stores in a neighborhood, people turn to the convenience store, where there aren’t as many healthy options.

"We know there are a lot of folks that shop at the corner store like it’s a grocery store because the corner store is the neighborhood source for a lot of folks," Webb said. "They say hey you know, it’s in my neighborhood, that’s why I go. Even if it’s not everything I need, I can get important items there."

But along with grocery store closures, larger grocery stores have been opening up on the outskirts of town--a new HEB Plus on Valley Mills and the recently renovated HEB Plus in Bellmead.

Joseph Sharkey is a professor at Texas A&M’s School of Public Health. He says grocery stores are trending towards larger businesses that can attract more traffic.

"It takes a certain population density or drive-by traffic in order to make having a store profitable," Sharkey said. "And that’s why you see some of the big stores kind of positioning themselves, kinda crossing what we’d normally consider boundaries so they can have access to a greater number of people who drive by, not necessarily live in the area, but who pass by the location."

So smaller grocery stores are closing and moving farther apart...

"Which is kind of the opposite of what we need, but that’s what’s happening," says Felix Landry, an urban planner with the City of Waco. He says the city’s looking into rezoning parts of the city for small grocery stores, but it’s really up to businesses to open up. Competition with the big HEBs and Walmarts on the edge of town is fierce and small businesses might not want to open up.

"As far as the location of the services like a grocery or a drug store—we don’t have a drug store downtown--that’s really up to the private side. The city doesn’t put those in," Landry said.

Next week we’ll be talking about some possible solutions to the food desert issue.