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Council removes limits on food insecurity funding

Thursday, December 10, 2020 by Harrison Young

City Council at its last meeting voted to remove limitations on using Community Development Block Grant funds to fight food insecurity in low-income areas.

The ordinance, sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and co-sponsored by Council members Greg Casar, Natasha Harper-Madison, Paige Ellis and Mayor Steve Adler, amends a previous ordinance that lays out specifics of the use of CDBGs. The revisions should make it easier for Austinites to access healthy food by making more of the population eligible for the benefits.

Specifically, the new ordinance prioritizes “development of viable communities by providing decent housing and a suitable living environment, and expanding economic opportunities, principally for persons of low and moderate income.”

“Essentially, it just gives us more flexibility when it comes to food-related economic development,” said Carol Fraser, food systems program coordinator.

One of the amended sections states that the CDBG can be used only if 75 percent of the recipients are low- to moderate-income. It also allows for the diversion of CDBG funds to build full-service grocery stores.

“There are areas of the city with no full-service grocery stores, wide areas, particularly on the east side,” Fraser said.

Another amendment includes funds for job training and business revitalization. The changes remove a restriction requiring businesses to take in up to $300,000 in income to qualify for assistance. The businesses must be within Austin’s full-purpose jurisdiction, which covers the vast majority of the city and surrounding area.

“We’re moving away from the term ‘food desert,’” Fraser added. “There are food stores that sell things that aren’t fresh produce. The type of food sold is also important.”

The Community Development Block Grant program provides a federally awarded sum from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is given to cities on an annual basis depending on a number of factors, including population, housing overcrowding and poverty levels. Cities are allowed to use the money any way they see fit, but development activities must benefit low- and moderate-income populations.

This year, Austin saw $7.8 million CDBG dollars, up from about $7.7 million in 2019.

A recent Dell Medical Center study found that increases in food insecurity are linked to Covid-19 surges. An average of 47 percent of families polled in the study experience food insecurity. According to a press release from the University of Texas, 1 in 5 children and 1 in 4 adults are food insecure.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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