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Friday, September 25, 2015 by Tyler Whitson
Districts 1, 2 and 4 hardest hit by retail food deserts
Despite beating most others in population growth estimates, Districts 1, 2 and 4 are trailing the rest of the city when it comes to fresh, healthy and affordable retail food options.
Edwin Marty, food policy manager for the Office of Sustainability, told the City Council Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee on Wednesday that the districts have the fewest grocery stores, farmers markets and farm stands of all the city’s districts.
Marty said that Districts 1 and 2 are on track to grow by as many as 20,000 residents by 2020, while District 4 could grow by as many as 10,000 residents in the same time frame.
“From these indicators, the districts that don’t have good access currently are perhaps going to get worse in the near future as we see the biggest growth projections for the city of Austin coming in Districts 1, 2, 3 and 9,” said Marty.
District 3, which has a “medium amount” of fresh, healthy and affordable food amenities, and District 9, which has a high amount of such offerings, are expected to grow as quickly as Districts 1 and 2.
“We do know that the low-income, minority communities throughout Austin are disproportionately impacted by these limited-access locations for food,” Marty said. “We also know that population growth is going to impact that in a negative way, and we also know that building on neighborhood strengths is probably the single best way to improve food access.”
Citywide, one in four children is food-insecure — a term the U.S. Department of Agriculture associates with “reports of reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet” and, in some cases, disruption in eating patterns and reduced food intake.
In addition, 63 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.
Marty pointed out that “significant portions” of District 2 don’t have access to grocery stores.
Council Member Delia Garza, who represents District 2, asked if the Office of Sustainability is undertaking efforts to get more grocery stores into the areas that need them.
“My office has talked to Economic Development, brainstormed, talked to HEB, and I still want to keep digging into that,” Garza said. “Those slides you showed — I know all about that and they’re very alarming, and (it’s) really sad that these families don’t have access to healthy and affordable food.”
Marty responded that it is often difficult to persuade grocery stores to open locations in food deserts.
“The research is mixed in terms of how valuable it is for a city to incentivize grocery stores,” Marty said. “Grocery stores generally are pretty good at maximizing their profit. They know where they’re going to make money, and if they’re not going to make money somewhere, there’s probably not a good reason for them to be there — from just purely a selfish corporation point of view.”
Alternatives, Marty continued, include community-owned grocery stores — which can be supplemented with federal grants — farmers markets, farm stands, corner stores and small grocery stores. Such smaller operations, he said, “all need to be part of the landscape to really create a food-secure community.”
Community gardens, school gardens and urban farms, Marty added, are also opportunities for communities to access fresh, healthy and affordable food. Despite lacking many retail options, Districts 1 and 3 have the greatest availability of community gardens and urban farms.
Marty said that figure “correlates to the fact that there’s significant vacant land in those districts — or has in the past been significant vacant land — as well as an understanding that there was a need to assist the community and community interests in food production.”
Districts 2 and 4 have a “medium amount” of community gardens and urban farms, and Marty said there are opportunities to increase the number of such amenities in areas of need throughout the city.
In addition to their challenges related to retail grocery establishments, Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4 have the highest rates of food assistance through programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
To address food-availability issues, Marty said that the city is working on several initiatives.
The Office of Sustainability and several other departments, for example, have developed a pilot program called Plan4Health in the Rundberg corridor that uses a grant from the American Planning Association. “For the last six months, we’ve been mapping community food system assets, which basically translates into where you can get fresh, healthy, affordable produce in the community,” Marty said.
Marty said city staff will be taking those maps into the community as part of a community-engagement process with goals that include expanding urban food production, supporting the expansion of quality retail outlets, ensuring that people who are eligible for SNAP benefits are able to secure them and more. Eventually, he said, staff hopes to replicate the program in other areas throughout the city.
The adopted Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget, which goes into effect in October, includes $400,000 for healthy food access initiatives.
Marty also said that city staff hopes to get more farmers markets and similar outlets to accept SNAP vouchers and participate in other food-assistance programs.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council Open Space Environment and Sustainability Committee: A City Council committee that reviews environmental matters, including climate change and protection, water, trees, and parks.
Austin Office of Sustainability: A branch of city government that works toward increasing the city’s sustainability and reducing the city’s carbon footprint.