November 30, 2023


Food & Travel Enthusiast

Market with a mission: non-profit grocery stores help heal ‘food deserts’ | Food

When Mickey Henry wants bread or ice-cream, aspirin or even a cut of meat, he rolls up to Jubilee Market, nine blocks away from his house. For the 70-year-old retired truck driver, who survives on social security and disability benefits, the store has been a godsend.

This low-income, predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood in north Waco, Texas, has long been known as a “food desert”, with only meager offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables available at convenience stores and Dollar Generals.

That changed five years ago, when the non-profit Mission Waco took over a convenience store that had fallen into disrepair, creating Jubilee Market. Today, it stocks convenience store staples such as chips and snacks, dry goods and household supplies but it also carries a wide variety of fresh produce, as well as speciality foods favored by its diverse range of customers – everything from oxtail to nopales – and locally made goods like honey and soaps.

Before Jubilee opened, the closest supermarket to Henry’s house was the Texas chain HEB three miles away. But it was essentially “out of bounds”, he says. The bus ride was not so bad, but Henry would struggle to get his wheelchair on to the bus with bags of groceries. “If I get my sisters to take me, I’ve got to pay them $20 – plus I got to feed them,” he jokes.

Henry also finds the groceries more affordable at Jubilee – customers can sign up for a rewards card that gives them $1 back for every $10 that they spend at the store.

A man in a motorized wheelchair is shown in his home.
Mickey Henry, a retired truck driver who survives on social security and disability benefits, is grateful for the affordable groceries at Jubilee Market. Photograph: Sergio Flores/The Guardian

Jubilee is one of a handful of small, non-profit grocery stores in America that have sprouted in food deserts, defined as low-income areas where most of the population lives more than a mile from a grocery store.

Unlike food pantries, non-profit markets aren’t typically trying to offer emergency food aid to people in extreme poverty; they aim to cater to the working poor, or those on fixed incomes, providing access and choice in neighborhoods that lack both.

But non-profits such as Jubilee have faced a tough couple of years with the pandemic, and more recently, rising inflation. The closure of similar community-led groceries in other areas of the US shows how hard it can be to create an alternative to the big chains.

Grocery chains, whose profit margins are already notoriously thin, do not usually rush to invest in neighborhoods such as north Waco. In common with cities and towns across the US, Waco’s deepening income inequality has left communities struggling to make ends meet. The city’s poverty rate is about double the state average. The median household income in the city, just over $40,000, is nearly a third less than the state median.

Because it’s supported by Mission Waco, Jubilee doesn’t need to turn a profit. But making sure that the grocery store doesn’t sink the non-profit, which has a tight operating budget, has its challenges.

Two images show the vibrant displays of fruits and vegetables available at the market.
Jubilee Market offers fresh fruits and vegetables in an area formerly known as a food desert. Photograph: Sergio Flores/The Guardian

Mission Waco had no experience of running a grocery store when it decided to open Jubilee Market, says the organization’s executive director, John Calaway; it was simply reacting to what residents said they needed. Gutting and restoring the old convenience store was incredibly expensive, he says, even before the costs of securing equipment and contracts with suppliers. But the question Calaway asked himself was: “Can we afford not to do it?”

The store starts its employees, many of whom live in the community, at $10 an hour – higher than Texas’s $7.25 minimum wage. Chaz Jackson, the store manager, hopes that as the market grows, wages will too.

Against the odds, Jubilee has so far managed to weather a pandemic, supply chain shortages and rising inflation, even if it hasn’t been easy. “We’re flying by the seat of our pants,” Calaway says, even after five years of operating.

Flipping homes and $5 lattes

Jubilee’s best sales come at the beginning of the month, when customers’ Snap (supplemental nutrition assistance program) debit cards are topped up, says Jackson. Sales taper off after that, and the market relies on higher-income customers to keep its revenue up. Someone who stops across the street at Lalo’s – another Mission Waco property leased to a restaurant – for a $5 latte or iced horchata coffee might wander over to Jubilee for some missing recipe items and also buy a jar of local honey.

On a slow Friday morning in March, Jimmy Dorell, a pastor and the semi-retired founder of Mission Waco, frequently stops to talk with people coming through Jubilee’s doors.

Dorrell has earned the trust of the community after years of living in the same neighborhood the nonprofit has always served. But these days, Dorrell worries that if the market becomes too reliant on wealthier shoppers, the mission of serving those already in the community could become more challenging.

A man wearing a protective face mask greets another man inside a grocery store. A woman in a mask watches the interaction.
Jimmy Dorrell greets Maria and Nick Martinez as they enter Jubilee. Photograph: Sergio Flores/The Guardian

Gentrification is already creeping towards north Waco; scroll Zillow and there’s no shortage of flipped homes and newly built boxy townhouses for sale. And Jubilee is just a mile and a half away from Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia Market – Waco’s prime tourist destination. The grocery store on its own won’t keep residents in their homes if rents and property values increase.

The sheer difficulty of keeping a community grocery store going is clear from a string of failed attempts elsewhere.

In 2013, a well-established food bank in Philadelphia opened a non-profit grocery store called Fare & Square in the low-income suburb of Chester, offering cashback discounts on purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables. It generated national attention as a model to fight food insecurity. Five years later, the food bank leased the property to a chain supermarket store. Residents no longer get the additional discounts. Philabundance, the non-profit that owned the market, declined to comment.

This year, Community Food Market, another mission-driven, community-owned grocery store in a food desert in Oakland, California, shut its doors three years after opening, leaving residents again struggling to access fresh food.

Other initiatives never even made it off the ground. After not a single company applied for $3m grant offered by Dallas city council to open a grocery store in a food desert in southern Dallas, the non-profit City Square put together a plan for a store in the area modeled after Jubilee But, for now, plans have stalled.

In the US, a lack of access to food is a political choice, says Raj Patel, a food systems researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. “Food deserts are not natural,” Patel says. “They are human-made, and they are, in some cases, very intentional in low-income communities of color.”

An elderly man wearing a Vietnam veterans hat stands in front of a bag dispenser in a grocery store trying to open a thin plastic produce bag. A display of potatoes is in front of him. In the background a refrigerated case can be seen.
Nathaniel Lowe shops at Jubilee. Residents say the market has brought a transformation to the neighborhood. Photograph: Sergio Flores/The Guardian

Solving them needs systemic change, he says, everything from a higher minimum wage or better public transit that would make food more accessible. Until then, low-wage earners are at the whim of the markets. He points to a 2011 initiative spearheaded by the then-first lady, Michelle Obama, who announced a number of chains including Walmart would participate in a plan to operate stores in food deserts. By 2016, with no binding commitment to maintain those stores, the chain shut down hundreds of stores, sometimes creating new food deserts in its wake.

No one can predict how long Jubilee will be able to successfully serve the community. When the market started, Dorrell says, he didn’t have a five year plan. But five years on, residents say Jubilee has brought the transformation to their neighborhood that they wanted to see.

“The first time I came here, it’s like you’re not familiar with it, but I felt welcome,” said Henry. The area used to look and feel dangerous, he adds. “All that’s gone. Jubilee cleaned that up. It’s been a blessing.”