There is a desert in Waco, but it’s not made of sand. It’s actually a food desert, and it exists in a North Waco neighborhood where residents have to walk 2.2 miles one way to the nearest grocery store to buy fresh produce and affordable groceries. To solve this problem, Mission Waco has begun work on the Jubilee Food Market and a hydroponic greenhouse at 15th Street and Colcord Avenue in Waco.
The whole project is being funded through the sale of “stocks,” but not the kind on Wall Street. Each stock costs $25 and is a small investment in the store. Mission Waco has already sold $210,000 worth of stocks, but needs to double that number to finish the Jubilee Market. Mission Waco plans to complete the market by this September.
Jimmy Dorrell, executive director and president of Mission Waco, said the hydroponic greenhouse will not be finished until about a year after that. A hydroponic greenhouse uses mineral-rich water instead of soil to create a closed, self-sustaining ecosystem, and Mission Waco’s greenhouse will be used to provide fresh food for the grocery store.
The goal of Jubilee Market will be to provide fresh, quality food to the surrounding community at prices comparable to grocers like H-E-B. In order to make that happen, Mission Waco will hand out O.A.S.I.S club cards, which stands for Opportunities Advancing Social Innovation Stock. These cards give the holder the lowest possible cost for each product in the store.
“People in the neighborhood, within a certain radius, will get an O.A.S.I.S card, so they will get bottom price,” Dorrell said. “That will be pretty hard, and I’ll probably lose money the first couple of years.”
Dorrell said food deserts like the one in North Waco are actually more common than one might think.
“It’s a growing phenomenon,” Dorrell said. “This is not just a Waco problem. This is all over America, because the big stores go to the edges of town where the wealthy are, where they can get more volume.”
Dorrell approximated that one-third or even one-half of residents who live near the proposed Jubilee Food Market do not own cars. They have to walk or bus to get to the nearest grocery store, the H-E-B on North 19th Street in Waco. The walk is 2.2 miles one way, and, on top of costing money, the bus ride there takes an hour and a half. Both factors make it difficult for people who work or who have children to invest the time necessary to buy quality food.
Helping the people and communities in Waco’s poorer neighborhoods is Mission Waco’s main objective. Dorrell said the non-profit had been trying to buy the building at 15th Street and Colcord Avenue for almost four years, but the owner wouldn’t give a fair price. Finally, after the roof started leaking, the owner agreed to sell at a price Mission Waco could afford. Instead of deciding what to do with the building by themselves, however, the Mission Waco team called a neighborhood meeting.
“We work out of a Christian community model, meaning we work for the people,” Dorrell said. “Instead of telling them what they need, we let them tell us what they need.”
Dorrell said about 60 people showed up to the meeting, and 77 percent of those in attendance voted to make the building into a grocery store. There will be another neighborhood meeting in two weeks to find out what kinds of food the community would like to see on Jubilee’s shelves.
“I really appreciate the way the project has included the voice of the community,” said Albuquerque, N.M., graduate student Jesse Harden, who is working toward his master’s in social work and is an intern for Mission Waco. “I’ve been really privileged to be a part of learning from the community and hearing from them and partnering with them.”
The building that will house the Jubilee Market has a long history of selling groceries. It was originally a Safeway in the 1920s. However, as business became more competitive in the 70s and 80s, it and numerous other neighborhood grocery stores were converted into convenience stores.
“One of the problems was convenience stores were predatory,” Dorrell said. “They sell stale bread at fresh bread prices or more, they don’t have produce that is fresh and they don’t have the things people need to eat.”
While convenience stores are great for picking up an item or two at the last minute or stopping to buy snacks, they are not stocked to provide the full spectrum of a person’s dietary needs.
“Food deserts traditionally have higher rates of obesity and higher rates of cholesterol and heart disease,” Harden said. “With increased access to healthy food, we hope to see those rates begin to fall. Also, we know that students who have high carb and high sugar diets have a harder time focusing in school, so the healthier the diet, the better concentration students will have.”
According to an asset map compiled by Mission Waco staff, there is a 33 percent obesity rate in the neighborhoods surrounding the Jubilee Food Market. Cholesterol rates are as high as 35 percent, and blood pressure rates are as high as 37 percent. These kinds of health problems are what Mission Waco is trying to reverse. By giving the community an easily accessible place to buy quality food, the nonprofit hopes to build up the community and increase overall health.
Dorrell said that while he has no idea what it looks like to run a grocery store, much less a nonprofit one, he has a great team of people working with him, including two former Kroger’s employees. He said he is also drawing ideas from a nonprofit grocery store started in Boston called Daily Table.
Dorrell said Mission Waco’s work on the hydroponic greenhouse is still in progress. Although the site for the greenhouse is still in renovation, the team has begun composting and has four raised garden beds ready to test production.
“We’d like to set up a greenhouse right next door to the Jubilee Market and have that be part of what supplies the store with fresh produce,” Harden said.
In the months before the greenhouse is ready, however, Mission Waco will partner with Drayton McLane’s grocery supply business McLane Global to provide food for Jubilee.
As the time for Jubilee to open approaches rapidly, Harden said he is excited to finally see members of the community around the store have access to healthy food for themselves and their families. The process of making this vision a reality is well on its way.
“We now know where every shelf will go and what will be on that shelf,” Dorrell said. “It’s going to be a really neat looking building.”