“(M)y mandate from Hightower…was: “Do something with existing resources within TDA to help create new markets for farmers and at the same time address hunger.” …In the same way that agriculture was becoming concentrated, the grocery store industry was becoming concentrated…The effect it had was the creation of what’s now known as the food desert. (Hightower) saw it as a market failure that could be addressed through coordination. The first thing we did was work with Paula (de la Fuente) and the farmers markets to develop farmers markets in urban areas. Third Ward in Houston. We went and looked at cities and essentially tried to lure farmers to come into inner city areas, and also create markets in rural communities, which were losing their grocery stores with Walmart’s push into rural areas. That was the basic idea. First of all, get farmers markets into these areas that had lost access to affordable, nutritious food. The next one was getting farmers markets authorized to accept food stamps.”
Kate Fitzgerald started as an intern at the Texas Department of Agriculture researching hunger in Texas. The mid-80s was the time that Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and other big hedge funds were doing leveraged buyouts of the grocery store industry. Large investment or hedge fund companies came in, bought out locally- or regionally-owned family grocery companies, closed their lower net profit locations, which tended to be inner city and communities of color. They would close those locations, pay off debt, invest and build grocery stores in lower cost, higher revenue suburban communities. The Texas Department of Agriculture applied for a grant for a pilot project to organize farmers markets in the parking lots of the WIC (Women Infants and Children) clinics and accept coupons for fresh fruit and vegetables. The pilot program became the national WIC Farmers Market nutrition program and today has an annual appropriation of approximately $17 million dollars a year. In addition, the seniors program receives around $21 million dollars a year.