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Council members criticize Cronk’s silence on call for food assistance

Monday, February 22, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Members of City Council have criticized City Manager Spencer Cronk for what they characterize as a poor response to their call last week to have the city set up a food assistance program for residents without food or water in the wake of the winter storm disaster.

In a letter penned Sunday, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison and Council members Vanessa Fuentes, Pio Renteria and Greg Casar restated their calls for the city to work with local agencies and nonprofits to help provide food to thousands of people who were already facing food scarcity. After a week of below-freezing temperatures that cut off energy and municipal water service for days at a time, Harper-Madison said the need for food aid is even more severe and that the city should fund and help coordinate the work of the appropriate groups at community centers and schools around the city.

Each of the four Council members or their staff began contacting Cronk on Friday asking for a plan to spin up a food distribution plan.

The letter drafted Sunday read, in part: “We have not yet received confirmation from you that we will have such a food distribution operation at the scale that is necessary, and the issue is urgent. Our constituents are asking us when and where food will be available for them.”

Harper-Madison, who spent most of the weekend at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex handing out water and privately donated food, said city and state leaders need to step in to lead the recovery.

“Three-quarters of the stuff we have here at the Millennium came from community members and we have people coming over from the income-restricted apartment complex across the street bringing us stuff and not asking for stuff,” she said. “The community is doing exactly what communities are supposed to do and I don’t know that I can say the same about our city, our county and our state … I don’t know that we are responding to meet their needs.”

Over the weekend the city opened 11 distribution sites for bottled water, with a patchwork of free or discounted meals available to those in need around the city at restaurants or other businesses. Harper-Madison said the water pickup sites would be the natural locations for organizations able to provide food to use the city’s infrastructure and help as many people as possible.

“I don’t know that the city should take the lead. The city should maybe pay for it and prop up a team that could help. We should accept the fact that we are not nimble enough to respond quickly, so we can let somebody else take the lead,” she said. “The problem is everything takes too long to go through the processes of the city so we should let operations that can move more nimbly do the work. We’ve seen now how community-led efforts are so much more tangible and present than the city’s efforts, if for no other reason than that they can move faster.”

With a special called Council meeting scheduled for this week, Harper-Madison said local and state leaders need to develop comprehensive disaster relief programs that can ensure food, water and other basic needs are met quickly and reliably.

“How do we make certain we are prepared for disasters moving forward? How is the capital city for one of the largest states in our republic prepared for disaster in the future?”

A statement to the press about recovery from the storm noted: “The Austin community is like no other. Thanks to innumerable organizations like Austin Disaster Relief Network, Community Resiliency Trust, Cooks Nook, Keep Austin Fed, Good Works, and Austin Voices, thousands of Austinites have received meals through mass food distribution efforts and home delivery programs. Additionally, thousands of individual restaurants have provided free food pick ups to area residents.”

“To supplement these efforts, Austin/Travis County Emergency Management secured approximately 25,000 ready to heat meals from the Red Cross and, in partnership with local organizations, will be implementing a variety of strategies including establishing a mass food distribution site and continuing to offer delivery to homebound individuals.”

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