Food Security

Food City owner Carlos Lowery shows off the local organic produce at the grocery store at 5400 Alameda.

More than 160,000 people in El Paso County live out of reach of healthy foods, either physically or financially. That number, about a fifth of El Paso’s population, includes more than 52,000 children.

A new food financing initiative has been launched in El Paso to battle the food insecurity problem.

El Paso County Commissioner David Stout is spearheading the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a pool of funding that provides a combined $1 million in grants or loans to food-providing businesses to expand or create healthier options in El Paso’s food deserts and low-income neighborhoods.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative, or HFFI, is a collaboration between the county and the Paso Del Norte Institute for Healthy Living. The initiative is the first of its kind in any Texas county, Stout said. The first HFFI was created in Pennsylvania in 2004.

The Institute for Healthy Living commissioned the Food for Every Child study, published in 2017, that examined food security in the region. The city has fewer supermarkets per capita than places of similar size, and about 20% of El Paso’s residents live out of reach of a supermarket.

Leah Whigham, the institute’s executive director, said she hopes the HFFI projects can help address the need for healthy food options in the county’s food deserts.

“That initiative encourages entrepreneurial approaches to increase access to healthy and affordable food, specifically in the areas where we have the highest need,” Whigham said.

Many of El Paso’s food deserts are in Downtown, south of Interstate 10 and in colonias in Far East El Paso.

County grant funding will be available to grocery stores, food hubs, farmer’s markets, mobile markets and other food retail providers. Applications opened at the beginning of July.

Projects submitted for consideration need to be in low-income parts of the county with below-average supermarket density or grocery sales, according to HFFI program guidelines.

A total of $1 million in HFFI funding is available — $500,000 in grants and $500,000 in low-interest capital loans. The county is putting up $500,000, which is being matched by $500,000 in low-interest, small business loans from the People Fund, a community development financial institution.

The $500,000 from the county is coming from a $3 million economic development impact fund.

“Not only does it kind of attack the root cause of some of these health issues, but it’s an economic driver,” Stout said.

It’s a long-term investment, he added, but one that will have a strong return.

“We have to start somewhere. We can’t just keep throwing money at the symptoms and treatment side,” Stout said.

Reduced access to a supermarket with healthy food options is not always the sole boundary keeping people from eating better. Time is another factor, especially for low-income earners who might have to work multiple jobs, leaving little time for things like preparing a full, nutritious meal, Whigham said.

In El Paso, grocery stores are not often found in the middle of a neighborhood. There are corner stores, but they often don’t have the space or inventory to stock healthier food options. Whigham said city zoning can often make it difficult for grocery chains to come in and build, since neighborhoods are often zoned as residential instead of mixed-use.

Stout said the city, which is in charge of zoning, needs to address the issue. Some newer developments, including places like the Montecillo development on the Westside, are mixed-use, which allows businesses and residential areas to exist close together.

About $91 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits go unclaimed in El Paso each year, according to the Food for Every Child report. Whigham said increased participation in the program can help residents gain more access to healthy foods.

The Institute for Healthy Living works with a number of partners to provide information, resources, cooking demos and SNAP enrollment clinics at local grocery chains like Food City and Food King, Whigham said.

“Increasing use of those federally-funded programs can help address food insecurity because it targets families at the lowest income levels and provides them purchasing power towards food,” she said.

Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105.