Linda Fulmer hopes doctors use Healthy Tarrant County Collaboration’s maps to dispel the notion that there’s no place within a reasonable distance of many of the homes in East and Southeast Fort Worth to buy healthy groceries.
Fulmer, the executive director of the collaboration, lives in that part of the city, so she’s seen supermarkets, typically owned by large corporations and doing $2 million in sales annually, shutter there over the years.
“It is discouraging, but our food system in the United States is based on for-profit retail stores and, at the end of the day, they are not a community service,” she said.
But a bright spot emerged in the survey that college students did of the retail food environment in Tarrant County, the one that’s depicted in the maps Fulmer hopes doctors will use.
The survey suggests dollar stores, which have proliferated in supermarkets’ absence and in low-income areas throughout the country, are not all bad.
“They had more grocery staples than we originally thought,” Fulmer said, “like canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, low-fat diary, whole grain bread, and many of them had frozen ground beef or frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and they were not overpriced like they are at convenience stores.”
How the survey came about and came together
The collaboration has been working with the residents of east and southeast Fort Worth on this issue since at least 2014.
Residents complained at that time that there were many well-meaning doctors who were trying to address chronic diseases by educating them on how to prepare food healthfully. The problem was the residents said they couldn’t find the ingredients nearby. The 72-square-mile area had just three supermarkets.
Fulmer said this led to the idea to conduct a survey, which the collaboration modeled after a survey researchers at John Hopkins University conducted in Baltimore in 2018.
From 2018 to 2020, college student interns visited 1,280 retail food stores in Tarrant County. Using their cell phones, they skimmed the aisle, giving each store points based on what they had available. One point for low fat milk. Another one point for low fat milk that took up more than 33% of the shelf. Another one point for low fat milk that took up more than 50% of the shelf and so on. The total amount of points a store could have was 32. The more points, the healthier.
The collaboration defined and categorized the stores as follows:
- Supermarkets: Large, full-service stores owned by major corporations, such as Kroger, Albertsons and Whole Foods.
- Smaller grocery stores: Smaller footprint stores offering a wide array of foods. Some are corporately owned, such as Aldi’s, while others are family owned, such as Save A Lot and Foodland.
- Dollar stores: Small box discount retail stores, including Dollar General, Dollar Tree, the Family Dollar and 99-Cents.
- Convenience stores: Small stores selling primarily convenience items and snacks.
- Gas stations: Convenience stores attached to a gas station.
- Pharmacies: Drug stores, such as Walgreens and CVS.
- Specialty markets: Stores specializing in particular food items, such as butcher shops, seafood, produce and ethnic markets.
Supermarkets had the highest healthy food availability index score of 31.03 points, followed by small grocery stores with 23.6 points, dollar stores with 14.5 points, pharmacies with 12.8 points, specialty markets with 9 points, gas stations with 7.9 points and convenience stores with 7.7 points. Some dollar stores earned as many as 26 points, but the maps the collaboration created show these higher-scoring dollar stores are west of I-35 in Fort Worth and in Arlington.
Dollar stores’ fraught history in Fort Worth
This is part of the reason why in 2019 the city passed an ordinance requiring all new dollar stores wishing to locate in Fort Worth to not only be at least 2 miles away from another dollar store but dedicate at least 10% of their shelf space to fresh produce and meat.
Fulmer said the maps don’t capture what effect, if any, the ordinance has had on the retail food environment in Fort Worth, but she’s hopeful it will be positive.
Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, who represents District 8 and pushed for the ordinance’s passage, said Fort Worth followed cities across the country which passed similar ordinances.
“Even in Louisiana down in the Deep South there was lots of concern,” Gray said. “In country towns, rural towns, dollar stores have actually pushed out grocery stores or made it difficult for grocery stores to actually meet their margin, which their margin is so small anyway, and in truth that was in 2019. I don’t know what that looks like these 14 months in the pandemic.”
Stacy Marshall, president of Southeast Fort Worth Inc., said he knows of only one dollar store opening in the area since the ordinance’s passage. It’s near the intersection of East Rosedale and Amanda Streets, and he thinks it was already under construction when the ordinance came up. This dollar store isn’t in the collaboration’s maps, but there is one on the map 3.2 miles away. The collaboration gave that store, a Family Dollar near the intersection of East Rosedale and Wallace streets, a healthy food availability index score of 13 points out of 32.
“I think that ordinance was very good because we were having too many,” Marshall said in an interview with the Fort Worth Report. “Some dollar stores like Dollar General or Family Dollar may have a freezer section, but a number of them do not and haven’t gone in and renovated the store to provide that kind of thing.”
Marshall said Fulmer gave him an early copy of the collaboration’s survey and maps and it’s helping him fulfill one of Southeast Fort Worth Inc.’s missions: economic development.
“I extract a lot of her information, the data that she’s collected, and put that into my marketing package to give to developers,” he said.
And Robert Sturns, the director of the city’s economic development department, said the city continues to try to lure supermarkets to low-income areas with incentives tailored to their needs.
“In general, we have looked at utilizing Chapter 380 agreements to refund a portion of sales and/or property tax. But we may also look at issues related to land and infrastructure if it is required to make a deal work. Have not had many takers thus far,” Sturns wrote to the Report in an email.
Fulmer said it is for that reason that it will take a more creative approach to get Tarrant County residents, especially those most vulnerable, healthy.
“If you talk to supermarkets, they say, ‘We’re not coming back,’ and now with so many people buying groceries online and having them delivered, that’s going to put a whole other layer of pressure on them,” she said.
She said in addition to the survey and the maps, the collaboration has been working with area churches to buy fresh produce wholesale and selling them in paper bags for half the price of what residents could buy them at Wal-mart.
Marshall said he’s seen some organizations hosting food drives get creative as well.
‘I noticed that some have little recipe cards that they’re handing out showing how to cook it properly so it won’t have a high fat concentration,” he said.
Overall, the knowledge the survey and the maps provide is power, he said.
“There’s a misconception throughout southeast and east Fort Worth that we don’t have available food for our citizens and people have to get in their cars and drive 50 miles to the nearest grocery store. That is not the case. They need to start visiting these different stores and once they go there and if it’s not something they want to see, hopefully, they will stand up and vocalize that to the store’s owners. Maybe with strength in numbers we’ll be able to get it,” Marshall said.
Councilwoman Gray said she already has her favorites places to shop: WinCo and El Rancho Supermercado.
“They have great fruits, vegetables and a great meat counter,” she said.
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.