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Student-led civics project comes to life with passage of food equity resolution

Wednesday, April 27, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Students with the St. Edward’s University Civics Lab celebrated the fruits of their labor this past Wednesday, as City Council members geared up to pass a resolution that would connect public transportation infrastructure to food equity initiatives.

The resolution, which was passed unanimously (with Council Member Leslie Pool off the dais), directs Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to incorporate mapping of full-service grocery stores across multiple public transportation platforms and to consider food equity in future transit development. 

“I have been so impressed with the students from the Civics Lab who have come to Council and testified. For them to highlight an issue in our community and come up with a solution is incredible,” Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said. “Their work is especially meaningful for the community that I represent … as prosperous as we are, we still have food deserts here in Austin where families travel at least 20 minutes to a grocery store.”

The Civics Lab’s work began when the students confronted a jarring statistic: Nearly 15 percent of Austinites are food-insecure, and 33 percent live more than a mile from the nearest full-service grocery store. For low-income families that rely on Capital Metro for transportation, it can be a challenge to meet basic needs, particularly for the elderly and disabled.

Thursday’s resolution directs city staff to develop maps outlining routes to full-service grocery stores and to integrate SNAP benefit providers across multiple platforms including on-board pamphlets, terminal information centers, and the CapMetro app. Staff will also explore implementing audible and visual cues to alert riders of healthy food stops in real time.

As for the Civics Lab’s broader ambitions, the resolution includes an amendment to Austin’s Strategic Mobility Plan outlining the need to place food access concerns at the forefront of future public transportation conversations. Staff will also begin a food access study, directing city resources to continue the students’ research and provide policymakers with data. With the momentum surrounding Project Connect investments, students hope that could eventually translate into expanded routes and increased frequency of existing routes to grocery stores.

In addition to its partnerships with the city, the Civics Lab has cultivated partnerships with a variety of stakeholders including the American Heart Association, Keep Austin Fed, the Sustainable Food Center, Central Texas Food Bank, Go Austin/Vamos Austin and Del Valle ISD, all of which came to show their support.

“As you all know, learning is supported by proper nutrition and access to healthy food,” said Christopher Weddle of Del Valle ISD, where a number of Austin’s food deserts are concentrated. “In our district, there is actually not a single full-service grocery store … this also impacts the hiring of educators, and can be a challenge for those who want to live here.”

City Manager Spencer Cronk will return before Council for an update on the initiative within the next 90 days. After that, it will be up to Capital Metro to bring the resolution to fruition.

“I would point out that the hard part in all of this is the implementation,” Mayor Steve Adler said as St. Edward’s student Benjamin Alford left the podium. “So don’t think that today’s vote got you there. Stay with us.”

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