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Idled restaurants may serve as low-income neighborhood groceries during pandemic

Wednesday, May 6, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Austin Public Health is proposing a “micro food-distribution” program to bring fresh produce and select packaged foods into low-income neighborhoods that have limited access to groceries.

The two-month program aims to prevent crowding in grocery stores while lowering the burden and risk of shopping during the pandemic for residents who may also lack access to affordable health care. If approved, the Sustainable Food Center would partner with anywhere from three to 10 currently idled neighborhood restaurants to set up temporary food retail operations inside the buildings.

The solution could simultaneously provide new sales opportunities for Central Texas farmers, generate income for locally owned restaurants, and offer convenient, relatively safe shopping options for residents.

However, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said the program is no substitute for providing the full-service grocery stores some neighborhoods have needed for years.

“This is a perfect example of when government overthinks an issue,” Garza said over the phone Tuesday.

While the program could benefit some, she said, it’s unlikely to keep most families from making the trip to their usual grocery stores for household items. “We’re piecemeal solving these things when we’re just creating another trip for them. So that’s great that they can go to a nearby restaurant and get some produce, but then they’re still going to have to go to the grocery store for toothpaste and diapers.”

Garza said the Office of Sustainability’s scoring criteria and map also leaves out some low-income areas by prioritizing residents without vehicles. In Del Valle, she said, where residents have been fighting for a grocery store for years, people need a vehicle for nearly every trip. But because many people have access to a vehicle, the scoring criteria considers them a lower priority for the program.

Garza said she has long been stuck in a “push and pull” with the Office of Sustainability over “what they believe is the right thing for that area, as opposed to what people have been asking for for a very long time.” The city keeps focusing on food with programs like the Healthy Corner Store Initiative and Fresh for Less mobile markets, while residents continue to request options to buy more than produce.

With all of these “Band-Aid solutions,” Garza said she feels confident that the city could have pooled enough funding to offer some kind of financial incentive package to help establish a full-service grocery store near low-income neighborhoods.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said the program as proposed would also leave out many District 1 neighborhoods with the least food access.

“Folks out in the far eastern part of my district also have to have cars, also don’t have access to restaurants,” she said. “When I was asked to offer some suggestions for restaurants that would be a good fit for the program … we kind of struggled. It was a heavy concentration in certain parts of (District 1), but certainly did not meet the needs of the folks who are most insecure from a food perspective.”

On Thursday, Garza said she is likely to ask the Public Health Department simply to consider all low-income neighborhoods for the program, disregarding the existing criteria that prioritizes residents without personal vehicles. However, considering that Del Valle also lacks restaurants, she said the city needs a “bigger-picture push” for grocery stores in all low-income areas.

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