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Grocery stores reflect changing demographics in North Texas

By Marla Crockett, KERA Reporter

Dallas, TX –

Paul Geisel, UTA Professor Emeritus of Urban Affairs: The first thing I look for is lard. If there's lard for sale, then I'm in an ethnic market.

Marla Crockett, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Paul Geisel loves to explore grocery stores. The University of Texas at Arlington Urban Affairs professor does a lot of informal research in them - not to mention shopping.

Geisel: I have friends that rave over my refried beans. You make the best refried beans. And you don't want to tell them it's 50% lard. But you don't see tubs of lard in a standard grocery store.

Crockett: What you can find in your local store are indications of a changing neighborhood, of ethnic groups moving in and seeking the foods they used to get back home:

Geisel: And I was startled the other day, I was in a grocery store in Dallas and there was a whole Peruvian section. I go with people, and they don't see it. People live in a world that's really changing, but they don't see it because their blinders are such that they just concentrate on their world.

Crockett: And that's why for the past twenty years or so Paul Geisel has been taking public affairs students on tours of grocery stores:

Geisel: Most of the students we have in the School of Urban Affairs are going to be in positions of public policy or dealing with making decisions about neighborhoods, about planning and so forth. And if you don't know the people you're planning for, if you do not grasp the enormity of the importance of their cultures in their lives and families and so forth, you're going to make mistakes. And you're going to make mistakes that can be avoided.

Crockett: We met up with one of Geisel's former students at our first stop this Saturday morning - Hong Kong Market in southeast Arlington.

Kieu Nguyen, UTA Student: It's kind of like a Wal - Mart, but for Asian people.

Crockett: Kieu Nguyen is a senior this year at UT - Arlington, a first generation American whose parents speak mostly Vietnamese. Her family frequently shops here:

Nguyen: Arlington has a big amount of Asians, and a lot of Asians like to look for stuff to make traditional food. Our food is a part of us that keeps us alive. Like eating rice everyday or something.

Crockett: At Hong Kong Market, the importance of rice is unmistakable. Just past the produce section are rows of large burlap bags - some weighing 50 pounds. Quantity is valued, Kieu says, but so is freshness.

Nguygen: Usually in the beginning of the year, a lot of people will put down how many bags of rice they want and they'll buy it to last for the whole year. If you buy a bag in the middle of the year it starts tasting dry, so people want to get the freshest rice. You see Asians do that quite a bit. PG: Can you ever think of a time when you thought about how fresh the rice was? It's not in your mental thought.

Crockett: Neither is the startling sight in the seafood section of hundreds of blue crabs piled on ice in an open case.

Geisel: Do you like blue crab? MC: Oooh. PG: Well, you're not ready for the fact that they're alive and you're going to cook them alive? Now the catfish tanks aren't full, they will be later today, they'll start filling these and so if you come back later, they'll be jam - packed and they'll sell out by the end of the day. KN: You get to pick your fish by just pointing at it in the tank, and they'll pick it out, throw it on the floor and bang its head, just knock it out and cut it. That's what you call fresh!

Crockett: But shoppers at Hong Kong Market are also doing more than hunting for the highest quality food. Paul Geisel says they're also making important social connections:

Geisel: The newspapers are here, the radio stations are here. You'll find bulletin boards saying someone's visiting, come call us. It becomes a part of the community center. So, the grocery store, we never anticipated that this is, we thought it would be the temples or that kind of thing, but it really is the grocery store where the culture stays alive.

Crockett: We see a similar thing, although on a smaller scale, at our next stop in Arlington:

Geisel: We're going in here, and we're going to look at a Middle Eastern market called International Foodland. I think you'll get a kick out of this one. (car door slams)

Crockett: Inside, there's a small caf . Hanging from the ceiling nearby are flags representing just about every Middle Eastern country:

Geisel: It's a symbol that says, hey you're home. You'll see the Muslim Yellow Pages that you probably didn't know existed. Again, the newspapers will be here. If you're familiar with a channel called Link TV, Link has a lot of evening news from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, all the Middle Eastern areas, so you'll come and watch that in the native languages.

Crockett: What you can also see here is the culture in action.

Store customer: I might as well get a whole case. $35 dollars. 35? Even?

Crockett: When an African-American woman comes to the check - out counter, she starts bartering with the clerk:

Customer: Well, since I opened up that gate for ya, you should've given me free stuff. Because I'm Sister Kalila.

Crockett: We tried to interview the clerk about his customers, but he declined, saying he needed permission from the owner, who was out of town. The owner, we learned, is the clerk's older brother.

Geisel: It was a classic case of culture. He wouldn't speak until his brother would have cleared it, and his brother would have, there wouldn't have been a problem, but there was that classical deference.

Crockett: Our final stop is at a Carnival store in Fort Worth's Poly neighborhood.

Geisel: And this is a neighborhood that in a 40 - 50 year period went from Anglo to African-American and today it's increasingly Hispanic and Asian. So, the Carnival will reflect that kind of diversity. It really markets to African-Americans and this incredibly new Hispanic population, the Latino population that is here.

Crockett: You see that especially in the meat and produce departments. Raul Alvarado, the lead assistant at the store, is our guide:

Raul Alvarado, Lead Assistant at Carnival: These are nopales, cactus. You can boil them or mix them up with eggs. MC: What does it taste like? PG: Like a mild bell pepper, almost sweet. RA: Yeah, it's sweet-tasting. The Hispanic culture really do like what's brought from their country, they like seeing it at Carnival.

Crockett: Pleasing customers is a big theme here. And that extends to a full service window where shoppers can pay all their bills in cash:

Alvarado: We have it all here. We have electricity, we have gas and we have phone. But just like any other place, we try to service them the way we can.

Crockett: A Western Union service also lets workers send money back home to their families. Geisel says these are the kinds of details he wants his students to understand:

Geisel: Most of these cultures we're dealing with are highly focused on the word, family. Family is the top of the mountain.

Crockett: And, he adds, family experiences center around the dinner table - with food bought at the community grocery store. For KERA 90.1, I'm Marla Crockett