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Economist’s report says Austin needs to develop its food sector

Wednesday, April 3, 2013 by Michael Kanin

A report from TXP economist Jon Hockenyos suggests that, though the City of Austin‘s food industry already contributes a substantial amount to the local economy, it has plenty of room for growth. This, according to the study, could include substantial focus on local food.


In a presentation delivered Thursday to Council members, Hockenyos said that he believes that his effort is just the start. “I would be surprised if there are not more recommendations over and above what we have offered as the initial round,” he said.


Indeed, the report seems to point in that direction. “The sum of the food sector is greater than the parts, and the parts are interconnected,” Hockenyos writes. “However, the ties could be stronger; if local farmers and food artisans are able to produce and sell more to Austin consumers, restaurants, and institutional buyers, each will benefit to the gain of the overall community. The challenge is to identify key actors, investments, policies, programs, and regulatory changes that can create ongoing progress toward this goal.”


Council Member Laura Morrison underscored what appeared to be the key take-home message of Hockenyos’ report. “Did I hear you say that it is on the same level as our creative (sector)?” Morrison asked.


“Commensurate,” Hockenyos replied.


“That’s pretty incredible,” Morrison summed.


Hockenyos’ study was the result of a Council resolution passed in August. It called on City Manager Marc Ott to develop a detailed report about urban agriculture and local food systems in Austin.


And detailed it is. Hockenyos looks at local food both in a national and regional context, examines economic activity around food in the Austin region, and lands on a series of findings and recommendations for Council, staff, and interested parties to use going forward.


Among these is the notion that “‘local food’ is a powerful brand,” and that “strong demand creates substantial room for growth and economic development in the food sector.” Morrison suggested a that some of this power could be harnessed to both improve access to food and provide employment in traditionally underserved areas such as Dove Springs using mobile food vendors.


Hockenyos told Morrison that he hadn’t seen a program that had done exactly that. However, he added that there wasn’t anything that he could think of that would be a “deal killer” with regard to Morrison’s idea. The head of Austin‘s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office Kevin Johns saw potential in Morrison’s suggestion. “The economic impact can be really great if it’s structured in such a way that it helps to get communities in poverty to get jobs, get businesses, and really grow from the ground up.”


Hockenyos’ recommendations also include a call for a feasibility study about “permanent food markets” – something like Seattle’s Pike Place Market – that could result in similar here in Austin.


Council Member Mike Martinez offered an enthusiastic reception for Hockenyos’ report and presentation. Still, he pointed out what is a clear issue. “The one thing though that we have to keep in mind that I notice the most is that those folks that are on SNAP, they can’t afford that locally-sourced product because it is very expensive,” Martinez said.


SNAP is the State of Texas‘ low-income food assistance program. Martinez reminded his colleagues that double SNAP credits can be used to purchase food at local farmers’ markets.


Hockenyos’ findings could also help resurrect the city’s languishing sustainable food program, currently in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

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