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Pandemic, winter storm prompt Council to address local food system

Friday, June 25, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

In response to the double-whammy of the pandemic and Winter Storm Uri, City Council adopted a resolution at its June 10 meeting with the goal of strengthening the city’s food system and aiding the local agricultural industry.

“During the pandemic, one of the first impacts that I believe became publicly of concern … were the disruptions to our food system,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the resolution. “As we faced the weather emergency of February 2021, again, we had a very stark reminder of the fragility and inequities in our systems, including the real power of natural disaster to interrupt food security for everyone impacted by the storm.”

One way to strengthen the food system highlighted in the resolution is producing more food locally. The resolution directs the city manager to create a list of city-owned properties that could be used for food production, using traditional agriculture as well as new techniques like vertical farming, hydroponics and aeroponics, or through non-agricultural uses like cold storage facilities, slaughterhouses and markets.

The resolution also prompts the creation of a comprehensive Austin/Travis County food system plan. A community board will oversee the planning by stakeholders and city and county staff members. Separately from the comprehensive plan, the city will conduct a food insecurity assessment, focusing particularly on the needs of people experiencing homelessness. 

The resolution addresses the most practical consideration: how to fund the work. While Council has already pledged to spend $3 million from the American Rescue Plan stimulus package on food insecurity – money that could be used to advance the resolution’s goals – the resolution opens the door for funding sources, including bond financing. 

Detailed recommendations by the Austin-Travis County Food Policy Board, which Council endorsed, informed much of the resolution’s content.

City Manager Spencer Cronk will provide an update on the food system plan in August, including when the final version will be ready.  

Council members say that addressing the food system is increasingly important in a changing climate. “We know that our food systems are very susceptible to the impacts of climate change,” Tovo said. 

Sprawling development is also hurting the local food system by eating away at what’s left of local agriculture. “Over the last 11 years, Travis County has lost 25 percent of its farmland, ranking second in the state to farmland lost to development,” the board noted in its recommendations. To push back on this trend, the board recommended that the city should consider agriculture the best use for city-owned properties with a USDA prime farmland designation.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said that the resolution “gets us on that path” to addressing food insecurity in a comprehensive way. “For far too long, we’ve had food deserts located in our community, and particularly in the eastern crescent,” she said. “It is not okay to have families that don’t know where their next meal is going to come from.” 

The recommendations by the food policy board to address food insecurity include more funding for food banks and similar organizations, additional city staff working on food insecurity, continued rent assistance, and eventually, the creation of a food system department.

“This is not easy to do, ” the board wrote. “It requires time, money and a great deal of transparency and accountability. It was needed prior to Covid-19, and that need is now exacerbated and urgent.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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