When Mickey Henry wants bread or ice cream, aspirin or even a cut of meat, he drives to Jubilee Market, nine blocks from his home. For the 70-year-old retired trucker, who survives on Social Security and disability benefits, the store has been a godsend.
This low-income, predominantly black and Latino neighborhood in northern 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 nonprofit Mission Waco took over a derelict convenience store, creating Jubilee Market. Today, it stocks staples such as crisps and snacks, dry goods and household items, but it also offers a wide variety of fresh produce, as well as specialty foods enjoyed by its diverse customer base – from oxtail with nopales – and locally. produced products such as honey and soaps.
Before Jubilee opened, the closest supermarket to Henry’s house was Texas chain HEB three miles away. But it was essentially “off limits,” he says. The bus ride wasn’t too bad, but Henry would have a hard time getting his wheelchair onto the bus with bags of groceries. “If I ask my sisters to take me, I have to pay them $20 – plus I have to feed them,” he jokes.
Henry also finds groceries more affordable at Jubilee — customers can sign up for a rewards card that gives them $1 for every $10 spent at the store.
Jubilee is one of the few small, nonprofit grocery stores in America that has sprouted in food deserts, defined as low-income areas where most people live more than a mile from a grocery store.
Unlike food pantries, non-profit markets generally do not try to offer emergency food aid to people in extreme poverty; they aim to meet the needs of the working poor or those on fixed incomes, providing access and choice in neighborhoods that lack both.
But nonprofits like Jubilee have faced a tough two years with the pandemic and, more recently, rising inflation. The closure of similar community grocery stores in other parts of the United States shows how difficult it can be to create an alternative to large chains.
Grocery chains, whose profit margins are already notoriously thin, don’t typically rush to invest in neighborhoods like North Waco. Like cities and towns across the United States, worsening income inequality in Waco has left communities struggling to make ends meet. The city’s poverty rate is about double the state average. The city’s median household income, just over $40,000, is nearly a third lower than the state median.
Because it is backed by Mission Waco, Jubilee does not need to generate profits. But ensuring the grocery store doesn’t sink the nonprofit, which has a tight operating budget, has its challenges.
Mission Waco had no experience running a grocery store when it decided to open Jubilee Market, says the organization’s executive director, John Calaway; it was simply a matter of reacting to what the residents said they needed. Emptying and restoring the old convenience store was incredibly expensive, he says, even before the costs of securing equipment and supplier contracts. But the question Calaway asked himself was, “Can we afford not to?”
The store starts its employees, many of whom live in the community, at $10 an hour, more than the Texas minimum wage of $7.25. Chaz Jackson, the store manager, hopes that as the market grows, wages will also rise.
Against all odds, Jubilee has so far managed to weather a pandemic, supply chain shortages and rising inflation, though it hasn’t been easy. “We’re flying by the seat of our pants,” Calaway says, even after five years of operation.
Flip houses and $5 lattes
Jubilee’s best sales come early in the month, when customers’ Snap (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) debit cards are topped up, Jackson says. Sales then decline and the market relies on higher income customers to maintain its revenue. Someone who stops across the street at Lalo’s — another Mission Waco property that’s rented from a restaurant — for a latte or $5 iced horchata might head to Jubilee for a few missing recipe items and also buy a pot of local honey.
On a quiet Friday morning in March, Jimmy Dorell, pastor and semi-retired founder of Mission Waco, stops frequently to talk with people who walk through Jubilee’s doors.
Dorrell has earned the community’s trust after years of living in the same neighborhood the nonprofit has always served. But these days, Dorrell fears that if the market becomes too reliant on wealthier buyers, the mission of serving those already in the community could become more difficult.
Gentrification is already progressing north of Waco; Scroll through Zillow and there’s no shortage of newly built inverted homes and square townhouses for sale. And Jubilee is just a mile and a half from Joanna Gaines’ Chip and Magnolia Market – Waco’s top tourist destination. Groceries alone will not keep residents in their homes if rents and property values increase.
The sheer difficulty of keeping a community grocery store in operation is evident from a series of failed attempts elsewhere.
In 2013, a well-established food bank in Philadelphia opened a nonprofit grocery store called Fare & Square in the low-income suburb of Chester, offering cash back on purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables. It has garnered national attention as a model for addressing food insecurity. Five years later, the food bank leased the property to a supermarket chain. Residents no longer benefit from the additional discounts. Philabundance, the nonprofit organization that owns the market, declined to comment.
This year, Community Food Market, another mission-focused community grocery store in a food desert in Oakland, Calif., closed three years after it opened, again leaving residents struggling to access fresh food.
Other initiatives never even saw the light of day. After no business applied for a $3 million grant offered by the Dallas City Council to open a grocery store in a South Dallas food desert, the nonprofit City Square hatched a plan to a store in the area modeled after Jubilee But, for now plans have stalled.
In the United States, 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 unnatural,” says Patel. “They are man-made and in some cases very intentional in low-income communities of color.”
Solving them requires systemic change, he says, ranging from a higher minimum wage to better public transit that would make food more accessible. Until then, low wages are at the mercy of the markets. He points to a 2011 initiative led by then-First Lady Michelle Obama, who announced that a number of chains, including Walmart, would participate in a plan to operate stores in food deserts. In 2016, without a binding commitment to maintain these stores, the chain closed 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, it didn’t have a five-year plan. But five years later, residents say Jubilee has given their neighborhood the transformation they wanted to see.
“The first time I came here it was like you didn’t know him, but I felt welcome,” Henry said. The area looked and felt unsafe, he adds. “It’s all gone. Jubilee cleaned that up. It has been a blessing.