Last year, the north side of Killeen lost two major grocery retailers — IGA Foodliner in August and an old H-E-B in October.
Since that time, that area of the city has had to reckon with its new status as a “food desert.”
“Finding and implementing a solution to this deficit is of utmost importance,” said Killeen City Councilmember Rick Williams. “The constituents of the northern half of our community deserve and demand to have the convenience of a full-service grocery store that meets the needs of the broadest swath of the community.”
As defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food deserts are “areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.
“As policymakers consider interventions to increase food access, it is important to understand the characteristics associated with these areas, such as income, vehicle availability, and access to public transportation,” the definition continues.
With the 2019 closures, the only grocery shopping options north of I-14 are Delicia’s Meat Market, at 1001 E. Veterans Memorial Blvd. and O-Mart, at 714 S. Fort Hood St.
After its north Killeen store closed, H-E-B continued to provide assistance to shoppers in the area in the form of three mobile food pantries that provided free food to area residents, and also provided many of the residents with Hill Country Transit bus passes to help residents make the trip to some of the grocery chain’s south Killeen locations.
The Herald spoke with a number of individuals, from grass roots-level community volunteers to public officials, to local and state university researchers, on what might best be Killeen’s best approach to address this pressing issue.
AT THE NEIGHBORHOOD LEVEL
Killeen resident Juanita Davis-Ealy has begun an online petition to prompt the city of Killeen to address the food desert situation on Killeen’s north side.
“Thus far I’ve reached out to four grocery store chains and two are very interested,” she said. “Also I host biweekly community awareness Zoom meetings, to update the community, on this issue until there’s some sort of resolve.”
Ramon Alverez, a lifelong Killeen resident and a former city employee, said by email, “I hate to say that I saw this coming, but I saw this coming. During my tenure as a City employee and having had worked on various City Council campaigns, I quickly realized that the issues of North Killeen were not amongst the priorities of the majority of our councilmembers, or senior City staff at that time.
“These issues ranged from urban blight (crime and grime) to the lack of true redevelopment efforts to aging infrastructure and housing. The aforementioned being the cause and the effect being what we’re seeing now, which the ‘Food Desert’ is one of them.”
Jeanne McCrary, also a Killeen resident, said that “hearts truly broke” when it was announced that the H-E-B in north Killeen would be closing.
“We have been fed several different stories regarding the closing of the H‑E‑B on Gray Street, from maintenance costs to lease issues with neighboring businesses, to shrinkage issues and franchise dealings,” she said by email. “None of which ring true, nor would have been without resolution. There was never a time when our H‑E‑B wasn’t busy, bustling with friends and neighbors, so it seems unlikely that it didn’t gross enough to maintain it. As for shoplifting, sure, that happens everywhere, how about a rent-a-cop to offset shrinkage?
“As for issues with franchise and neighboring businesses, codes and laws are in place to rectify them. Face it, poor people were simply more trouble than we were worth.”
A NEW SOLUTION
Kristin Wright is board chair of Killeen Creators, a community organization which runs a community garden on Killeen’s north side and of which Killeen City Councilmember Ken Wilkerson is also a board member.
“Challenges are best solved locally,” Wright said. “Humans are meant to be creators — creators of life, food, and art — not just consumers. Our selves and our communities will be stronger and more whole when we achieve a greater balance of creating and consuming.”
From their work in youth sports activities in Killeen, Mark and Kelly Fladling were inspired to set up the garden.
Nestled on a lot on West Avenue J off Veterans Memorial Boulevard donated by Louie Minor, the garden currently has no fundraising efforts, is run entirely by volunteers and works to provide fresh vegetables to local residents, and sometimes to people who are homeless.
“You pay what you can,” Wright said, adding that the organization is working to achieve nonprofit 501-C-3 status, and thus hopes to expand so as to have at least one paid staff member, as well as have a similar garden in every Killeen neighborhood.
Aya Eneli, a Killeen Creators board member, hopes the program will help address health benefits for children in the area.
“Instead of farm to market, it can be farm to table,” Eneli said Tuesday at the garden site.
Through the program, neighbors sometimes deliver food to each other, and Wright believes the program not only has a positive environmental impact, but can also possibly evolve at some point into a for-profit business model, helping to foster local economic development.
“Killeen could use a little more green space,” Wright said.
Kelly Fladling said the project offers those involved a bit of “pride and dignity.”
“These are things that everyone needs,” Fladling said.
Former state Senate candidate Clayton Tucker said his online show, “Tucker Talks Texas,” inspired Minor to donate the land for the garden.
“It was our very first show,” Tucker said at the garden on Nov. 24, adding that he regards getting rid of food desert situations as a top priority.
Wright noted how human interdependence speaks to the importance of programs such as the garden.
“There are times in our lives when each of us is dependent on others for our well being, at birth and end of life, for sure, but also in times of great physical, mental, or distress,” she said. “Again, both communities and individuals are stronger when we embrace this reality and our need to balance fending for ourselves and fending for each other.”
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