KILLEEN, TX — The winds of change blew through the community of Killeen in 2019 when they saw the area's two mainstay grocery stores closing.
"There was recently an H-E-B that was located downtown that closed down. We also had an IGA on Rancier that closed probably about a year and a half ago."
Juanita Davis-Ealy is a Killeen resident well aware of how residents in North Killeen have impacted life.
"North Killeen is very diverse with a mixture of retirees, single moms, single fathers. Just very diverse," she said during a Zoom call. "You'll find every demographic over here."
She said the effects of the closures still linger, as the options she once had to purchase healthy food items have disappeared.
"We have been facing a food desert here for approximately about two years now, going on three," Davis-Ealy said.
The Center for Disease Control describes a food desert as an area with relatively poor access to healthy and affordable food.
“Areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) Guidelines utilizes factors such as accessibility, individual barriers, and neighborhood indicators in defining food deserts.
Davis-Ealy says the definition is on point for some residents in north Killeen. She said some lack transportation and currently buy their grocery needs at stores without fresh food and limited healthy options.
In the hopes of bringing awareness, an online petition she started following the closure of the HEB and IGA highlight what she describes.
"We just don't have those options here anymore and it just feels like a trap when you don't have access to fresh food options like we did when we did have those two stores," said Robert Clark II, a veteran and north Killeen resident since 2007. "Come over on my side of town tell me what you think."
"What's happened with Killeen, the north part, that is. Is it's one of our older areas. You can kind of square it off as to where the growth started, in the downtown area, and as Killeen started to grow, guess what? They move south and so that's where all the people are."
Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra said that bringing a new grocery store to the north side of Killeen has been a frequent topic of discussion in meetings with the Killeen Economic Development Corporation.
"Always the top of our discussions is what's the update on the new grocery store," he said."I hope the message conveyed from the perspective of city leadership is were constantly working on a grocery store. I think sometimes people don't think we're doing anything. We're doing everything we can to make sure that we attract somebody."
Today he said the city is marketing a lot on 38th and Rancier, and discussions continue happening with potential developers and private enterprises.
"We've talked to several different organizations, several different grocery stores," he said. "But remember, their private businesses and it involves a lot of different people."
In attracting a new grocery store, Mayor Segarra said the bigger picture proves they can make a profit. Even with the offer of tax abatements, or land, the bottom line is what they look at the most.
"It's all about foot traffic," he said. "With any business. They have to have foot traffic. You have to have so many people come in and do business there for you to be profitable and it happens anywhere."
He said the reality of why the area lost the two grocery stores it had, wasn't because they wanted to leave. But, because at the end of the day, they weren't making a profit.
"H-E-B, as big as they are, and as much money as they have, they were losing about $40,000 per month," he said. "And that's a big chunk, you know, and they did that for several years before."
In explaining some of the others factors, leadership has had to take into account in the process of attracting a new store.
Mayor Segarra described how just a few years ago, the city came close to securing a Wal-Mart. However, he said they were nearly three-quarters of the way to finalizing the deal before a market shift, spurred by a change in consumer spending moving online, jolted the plan.
"Wal-Mart went from building four hundred brick and mortar stores a year to less than 40 nationwide because of the internet, because people started ordering online," he described. "So if you would ask me three or four years ago how close we are, I would have said probably in the next couple of months we should see one. And here we are four years later."
Mayor Segarra said the experience highlights how even when discussions toward securing a new store get close, it's not until everybody signs on the dotted line and construction begins that matters.
"Then we'll be celebrating."
But despite that, he hopes, at least for now, residents are aware that the process of attracting a new grocery store to the area is one city leadership continues to work on. The fact they're still having discussions with potential developers is a good sign.
"It's a good thing," he said. "You know, we want to keep pushing them along."
Meanwhile, just a walk away from the shadow of the old H-E-B in north Killeen, the Food Care Center continues proving to be an example of selflessness and community service. While, not the ideal long-term solution, in solving the problem of bringing a broader range of healthy food options for consumers.
The non-profit is home to a community in action, where a neighbor is seen helping neighbor. And lives aren't just being changed for the better, in some instances, they're being saved.
"Before the pandemic hit we were over 2 million pounds distributed to a neighborhood of about 75,000 people." Executive Director Raymond Cockrell of the Food Care Center said.
"We'll do about three million pounds of groceries to a hundred thousand people this year."
Amid an army of volunteers, some for in their first month, others in their second decade. The task of putting together food carts for those in need takes place.
Florine Stevenson said she once used to come to the Killeen Food Care Center to get food to stock the pantry.
Today, she volunteers and has even been able to donate to the center.
"When God blesses you with something you want to pass it on, and we are grateful."
Work done, all in support of a mission that seems as challenging as it is essential from the outside.
From fresh fruit to fresh flowers. In a tour of the center, Director Cockrell shows how everything on the shelves and carts will be given out in just one day.
To people like Betty Johnson, who sits outside the front doors of the food care center with her grandson, Ken.
"Just trying to make ends meet for my family," Johnson said in describing why she's at the center today.
When asked how she would describe the impact the Killeen Food Care Center has had on her life.
Johnson replied it hasn't just changed one day for the better.
"It's been life-saving," she said. "Yes, it has. On point with that."
"It's like heaven to me!" Betty Johnson's grandson Ken yells as those surrounding erupt in laughter.
The scene is one of the community members, young and old, some in need and others there to help, joined together in Killeen.
A picture Director Cockrell sees all the time but remains one of the most meaningful you'll find in Central Texas.
"Boy you're going to make me cry, that's what makes my job so special," Cockrell said. "I love what I do."