If Houston had a problem, it somehow found a way to solve it. It got astronauts stranded in space and hundreds of thousands of miles from earth back home safely. Pueblo, Colorado’s tenth largest city, also has a problem and, so far, has found no remedy for solving it. And, if you believe city leaders who are working on a solution, they’re not even close. Pueblo’s problem is finding fresh food.
Huge swaths of the city have turned into food deserts. That is, there are entire communities with limited access to convenient places to buy affordable, nutritious food, including fruits and vegetables. “It’s a health issue,” said Pueblo City Councilman Dennis Flores, who has been frustrated at every turn in trying to get even a step closer to a solution.
The city’s east side, what Flores calls “a large geographical area,” has been without a grocery store since November 2016 when Safeway announced it was closing shop on the store that had served the community for more than fifty years.
“For more than a year we evaluated this store extensively and looked at options to improve its performance. Ultimately, our business analysis indicated that we needed to close the store,” the grocery giant told The Pueblo Chieftain. The closure by Safeway was the second in a seven-month period in the city. In April of 2016 it shuttered its 29th Street location.
“When you don’t have access to good food,” said Flores, “you end up affecting your health. With bad nutrition you have an increase in chronic health issues. Also, premature death.” For many eastside residents, many low income and elderly, the first food option is often a convenience or drug store that sells food that is more often than not, canned, boxed or very close to being out of date. Fruit and fresh produce are poor quality and, not surprisingly, overpriced. A convenience store banana can sell for the same price as a traditional grocery store sells an entire bunch. “The profit motive is so high,” said the first-term councilman and Pueblo native.
“I grew up on the eastside,” said Steven Henson, editor of The Pueblo Chieftain. The Safeway was an anchor in the community for generations. But times have changed all across the community and not for the better. “The deterioration of the eastside has been hard to watch.” Henson said the building has since been razed and a new health center stands in its place.
While it’s good to have a new health center serving the community, its pharmacy will not be available to the general public. Nearby Seal Pharmacy, also a landmark in the community, is now also gone.
The reality that a significant portion of Pueblo is now a food desert has challenged city government for a workable ‘Plan B.’ “We’re already, I think, working on ‘Plan M,” said City Councilman Bob Schilling. “I guess they just weren’t making enough money (to keep it open),” said Schilling. “We’ve tried to get other names in there but, for whatever reason, nobody wants to put the money in there.” A local food pantry has announced plans to step in, but it is far from a permanent solution. If things move smoothly, the pantry may open “by April or May.” It will not, however, offer the same array of choices as a traditional grocery store.
The city says its job is to work with grocery chains to make opening a store feasible. But that’s all it can do, said Schilling. “There’s a delicate balance between government and free enterprise,” he said. “We just have to continue to try and lure a company.”
Right now, eastside residents must either drive miles to a far side of their community or to another side of town to buy food. But for the poor or elderly who don’t have a car as a first option, it takes planning to put food on the table.
While Pueblo’s eastside is hungry for a grocery store a similar challenge exists on the city’s westside. “We’re trying to develop the westside,” said Schilling. “Hopefully, if you build enough population a store will come.” Unfortunately, he added, “no matter what we do, we don’t have the ability to come in there” and just make things happen.