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Arlington leaders want to make it easier to get healthy food and harder to build dollar stores

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Arlington City Council members want to curtail the number of dollar and discount stores that do not sell fresh or frozen produce. Members are hoping a zoning change would make it easier for tens of thousands of residents who live in food deserts to obtain healthy food.

Patricia Sinel, a principal planner with the city, says stores like Dollar General and Family Dollar take revenue away from nearby grocery stores and jeopardize development of new supermarkets.

"If a dollar store comes into a food desert, a grocery store is reluctant to come in," Sinel said.

More than 40,000 Arlington residents live in areas considered food deserts, according to a 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture study. The agency considers census tracts "low income and low access" areas if 20% of residents live in poverty and 33% live more than a mile away from supermarkets.

Areas indicated in the study include UT Arilngton campus; parts of north Arlington bordering Texas Highway 360; and a stretch of neighborhoods between South Cooper Street, Pioneer Parkway and Interstate 20.

The ordinance requires new stores to build at least one and a half miles from other stores and confines new stores to retail centers. The city also created parameters for discount stores, including that they must be between 5,000 and 15,000 square feet, dedicate more than 20% of their floor space to fresh or fresh frozen food or contain a prescription pharmacy. The ordinance does not affect existing stores.

Council members approved the ordinance 5-1. District 3 council member Nikkie Hunter voted against the ordinance, and council members Bowie Hogg and Barbara Odom-Wesley were absent from the meeting.

City Council has to vote again June 28 for the policy to go into effect.

The vote Tuesday follows months of discussion about dollar stores and a broader discussion of Arlington-area food deserts. The city's Unity Council, a city-appointed group tasked with recommending solutions to socioeconomic disparities, suggested finding food desert solutions.

Odom-Wesley, who chairs the committee that drafted the recommendation, said in a Jan. 11 council session that dollar stores can harm access. Dollar stores compete to rule markets by buying land, she added.

"I really want to see a commitment to trying to minimize the rapid growth of these (stores)," Odom-Wesley said.

Richard Weber, who spoke during public comment, says he saw that most of the 34 dollar and discount stores were outside the food desert areas, which scatter across the city's north and central regions.

"It seems like the solution is not to limit the small box stores, but to actually encourage them to produce more fruit or fresh produce," he says.

Sinel says companies looking to open stores in town are seldom interested in including fresh food and, if they are, cannot provide an estimate of how much of their store space will be dedicated to produce, and few standing stores offer fresh options.

Raul Gonzalez, District 2 council member, says he wants residents to know the city is aware of food deserts.

"We're going to have a plan of action, but this is just one way to at least get the ball rolling," he says.

Got a tip? Email Kailey Broussard at kbroussard@kera.org. You can follow Kailey on Twitter @KaileyBroussard.

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