How many times do you go to the grocery in a weekend? Once? Twice? Three times?
Imagine if a trip to the grocery store took three hours. That's a reality for some of the 1-in-10 Americans who don't have easy access to fresh food.
It's called living in a food desert. It’s not like we don’t have enough food in this country, so how come we can't fix that problem?
To understand this problem better, I'm going grocery shopping with 26-year-old Jaretha Robinson. She lives in one of 40 food deserts that blanket large parts of Dallas.
She’s a working mother of three, who doesn't have a car. By bus, the easiest grocery store to get to is Walmart, which is 8 miles away.
“This is time you could spending with your kids. They're home right now. You gotta go to the grocery store,” I say to Jaretha as we wait 20-minutes for the bus to come.
“Yep. Wasted time. But, you know, I have to do what I have to do,” she says.
Once we’re on the bus, it’s a 48-minute ride.
“It's hard. We have to travel far just to get to where we are going because of us lacking a car,” Jaretha says.
Because it's so hard, many people won’t make this trip. They'll go to the corner store, where you can't get fresh food. But that's not what Jaretha wants for her kids
“I love to see fresh food. The smell of the tomatoes. It's pleasant. Anything fresh is pleasant, of course,” she says.
But getting fresh food is ultimately, a three-hour round trip. I'm giving her a hand today, but usually she only has two hands to carry everything back.
“This issue of food and getting to food, how hard is that on you, in your life?” I ask her.
“It's very hard,” she says.
“Do you ever get down about it?” I ask.
“It gets stressful. It gets very stressful. I'm getting tired of this,” she says.
LACK OF GROCERY STORES
A food desert is a term that comes from the United States Department of Agriculture. It factors in a neighborhood’s income level, access to transportation, and most importantly, if you live more than a mile away from a grocery store.
We're not talking about a corner store -- where fresh food options are rare. We're talking about a supermarket that does at least $2 million in sales a year.
Here's why all of that matters. In areas without a grocery store, the government says, there's an increase in obesity and chronic diseases.
To fix the problem, Dallas Council Member Casey Thomas wants more grocery stores.
“How many do you need? How many would you like to see built?” I ask him.
“As many as possible. I would say maybe 10, 20,” Thomas says.
For two years, Thomas has been trying to get a store to open in a strip mall near Red Bird Mall in southern Dallas. It's been empty for a decade. The City offered any grocery chain $3 million to take it over. No one was interested.
“When you have as many options as they have, this has not been there choice,” he says.
“Even if you offer them $3 million?” I ask.
“3-million dollars,” Thomas sighs.
I talked to a grocery industry analyst, Bill Bishop, who says it can be hard for a traditional, big supermarket to make a profit in a food desert. That's because residents generally have less money to spend, and it can cost grocers more for security and loss-prevention.
“Do you agree with the reasons the grocery store chains give for not being able to do business in your neighborhoods here?” I ask Thomas.
“Based on their model. I accept that. I don’t believe that to be true. You can make money because people will buy groceries,” he says.
So, Thomas wants 10-20 groceries stores. So far, the city's has attracted two. Bringing in big grocery stores feels like a losing battle.
Are there other options besides bringing in grocery store chains?
I'm at a place called Bonton Farms, in the heart of a southeast Dallas food desert. They’re growing fruits and vegetables, raising chickens and goats. I'm pulling weeds with Daron Babcock who lives in the neighborhood.
“We pull the weeds, and they go where?” I ask Daron.
“To the goats or chickens for food, and then they turn it into fertilizer. Kind of a cool cycle of life,” Daron says.
The plan is to build a community center and cafe, a place where residents can gather, buy affordable food and learn about healthy living.
“Can I make an observation?” I say to Daron. “The word food desert does not seem to be a helpful term to describe the problem, or how to fix it,” I say.
“Absolutely, because it isolates a big problem into one symptom,” Daron says.
“If you put a grocery store in, it will only impact a one-mile radius. It's a very small impact for a really huge expense,” Daron tells me.
“You'd need 100's,” I say.
“Hundreds,” Daron adds.
Another non-profit is helping to get fresh food into corner stores, where usually there isn't much. At Hackney Foods, they have this cooler. Fresh food is delivered once a week.
“If you don't understand the depth of the problem, you end up hitting the bull's-eye of the wrong target. The wrong target would be building a grocery store in a community and thinking that's going to solve the problem,” Daron says.
Remember that $3 million that no grocery would touch. With that kind of money, Daron thinks he could help open community gardens and stores across southern Dallas.
“We have 40 food deserts and with that $3 million, we could have the answer to this problem. Without a question,” he says at the end of our conversation.
Daron may have a solution. But this problem is decades in the making and requires many solutions.
So, what have we verified?
Food deserts are a widespread problem that can be hard on people and bad for their health. Big supermarkets are not the only answer.
And if those stores they don’t to come to a food desert, it’s time to embrace alternatives.
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