During his weekly Sunday grocery trip, Charles Howard fills his shopping cart and pushes it out of the H-E-B parking lot to begin his five-block walk home.
“A lot of people will leave the H-E-B parking lot with carts because they have to come farther than I do,” Howard said. “A lot of us end up at the food bank and other things, but we’re just trying to survive.”
Howard lives in an apartment at the intersection of Church and College streets, just outside an area of Killeen designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a food desert — an area where residents have limited access to fresh and affordable foods.
“Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options,” the USDA website states.
Access to food is a problem for residents throughout Killeen, though, not just for those who live in food deserts. That’s why small markets close to neighborhoods are important. Residents can have access to them by walking or biking, so they don’t have to travel several miles just to get a gallon of milk, said Jill Hall, senior planner and preservation officer for Killeen.
“Not everybody has a car,” Howard said. “Some people call a cab — not that they can afford it, but they don’t have a choice because they don’t have other means of transportation.”
Finding a way
Von Olds rushes as she pushes her shopping cart across the parking lot of the Killeen Walmart so she can catch the bus that runs hourly past the store.
As she waits at the bus stop, she guards a cart of six white plastic bags filled with two loaves of bread, frozen chicken, frozen dinners, Ramen noodles and other items to get her through the next week, or hopefully, two.
If she bought any more groceries, Olds, like many Killeen residents without vehicles, would have to call a cab.
Express Cab Company in Killeen said it receives numerous phone calls from residents seeking service to and from grocery stores, particularly those residents who live downtown.
On days when Olds can’t afford a cab, toting two arms full of groceries is impossible and she doesn’t want to pay the increased prices at convenient stores, the Killeen resident arranges her day around the bus schedule.
The buses run hourly until 7 p.m. weekdays and 6 p.m. Saturdays, but the last one leaves the stop in front of Walmart at 6:27 p.m. weekdays and 5:27 p.m. Saturdays. No buses run Sunday.
“You have an hour to do what you gotta do and get back on the bus,” she said. “It’s very aggravating, frustrating.”
Still, Olds would rather endure long bus trips than walk a short distance and spend more at a convenient store.
“It’s convenient, so they jack the prices up,” she said.
Making the trip
Jeff Bartlet prefers to buy frozen peas. They’re lighter and a little bit cheaper than cans, but by the time he gets home from K-Mart, they’re already defrosted.
Bartlet, who lives at the intersection of Watercrest and Willow Springs, generally walks to the store two or three times a month and is mindful of what he buys.
“Walking really cuts down on what I purchase,” he said. “The red meat is OK. I can get it home and get it frozen. But the chicken — I have to cook all of it immediately just to make sure I can keep it as fresh as possible.”
Walking to the store empty-handed is not a problem for Bartlet, despite having to go up and downhill multiple times. It’s the 1.5-mile walk home that’s arduous.
“If I have several pounds of groceries, it’s quite a burden,” he said, adding sometimes the thin plastic bags split during the 40 minutes it takes to get home. “You can only hold so many pounds per arm.”
When Bartlet, who is unemployed and doesn’t have a car, decides to take the bus, the trip costs him $2 and requires one bus transfer.
On Saturdays, it takes as long as four hours. On weekdays, it takes two hours, but either way, Bartlet, like Olds, relies on the bus and must plan his day around its schedule.
“There’s no place that I can’t get to, but I can only do it between certain hours of the day,” he said. “When you have businesses open 24 hours, you should have means to get there.”
Bartlet’s access to food is limited to perfectly timed bus trips, 40-minute walks, the increased prices at convenient stores or nearby fast-food establishments.
Low-income residents who lack transportation rely more on smaller neighborhood stores that may not carry healthy foods or may offer them only at higher prices, according to the USDA.
Whether you live at the corner of Killeen or the inner city, Hall said residents’ ability to easily purchase nutritious foods is important.
That’s why the city introduced the USDA-funded Green Avenue Farmers Market downtown in March to help alleviate the issue of low food access.
“The less we have to travel to get somewhere, I think the better we’re off,” Hall said. “Month by month, it seems that residents are finding out about the farmers market.
“We’re seeing a larger customer base and farm vendors have been stable and increasing little by little.”
All about location
Walking to the store is Howard’s only option.
He doesn’t own a vehicle and it’s inconvenient for him to make the walk home, but he said it’s nice to have an H-E-B within walking distance.
“(The downtown) H-E-B is one of the most convenient supermarkets that we have at our disposal,” Howard said.
Even though it is one of the smaller grocery stores, Hall said it provides a needed service to residents on the north side of town.
The city’s downtown plan supports expansion opportunities and the city would fully support upgrading the H-E-B at 809 N. Gray St., much like the October 2008 expansion of the store on Trimmier Road to an H-E-B Plus.
“It’s a smaller location, but we’re able to nourish the folks that live in that part of town,” said Tamra Jones, H-E-B senior public affairs specialist. “Demand of customers is one of the things H-E-B takes into consideration when deciding whether or not to upgrade or add a new store.”
The corporation also looks at population growth and real estate opportunities, she said, and there is always the possibility of another store being added “based on the community needs and the population growth.”
Consumers who would like to see the downtown H-E-B upgraded or renovated can provide feedback to the store’s corporate office at HEB.com.
But any downtown expansion will take time.
For the time being, Bartlet will keep making his 40-minute walk to the store or taking the bus.
And although his access to a grocery store like H-E-B is inconvenient, he does what he has to in order to keep himself fed.
“What are your options?” he asked. “You either pay to take the bus or walk or don’t eat at all.”