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City moving ahead with five-year food security plan

Thursday, August 25, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The Office of Sustainability will soon begin recruiting community members interested in helping to create the city’s first comprehensive food plan, which is intended to address food scarcity and build up the community’s resilience to withstand natural disasters.

The plan is one of the objectives in a June 2021 resolution passed by City Council in response to Winter Storm Uri, which disrupted power and water service to many areas of the city and left many without basic food supplies.

At last week’s meeting of the Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities, food and resilience coordinator Sergio Torres-Peralta gave a presentation outlining the plan, why it is needed, and how his office will work through 2023 to deliver the plan to Council in early 2024.

Torres-Peralta said 18 ZIP codes in Austin currently lack a full-service grocery store. With nearly 20 acres of local farmland disappearing every day due to development pressure, less than 1 percent of all food consumed in the area is produced through regional agriculture.

“It’s essentially a road map to tackle all these issues, and more. We acknowledge that a lot of these issues are rooted in not just catastrophes but also historical issues and policies,” he said. “A food plan will set goals and strategies that can address these issues from a policymaking standpoint.”

The office has recently hired the consulting firm of Woollard Nichols & Associates to help lead the process of convening a community advisory committee of 15-30 people who will play a major role in the plan’s creation. The group is expected to begin meeting in November, followed by several rounds of community engagement sessions beginning in early 2023.

Torres-Peralta said the office’s goal is to have the advisory group made up of at least 50 percent people of color. Less than half will be executives or leaders of local nonprofits, who tend to be overrepresented in decision-making groups, resulting in the exclusion of community members who live daily with the issues being discussed.

Committee Chair Jonathan Franks said the issue of food scarcity has an amplified impact on people with disabilities.

“One of the plights of people with disabilities is obviously food deserts, lack of transportation, socioeconomic status, lack of resources and lack of community awareness,” he said. “It is important for us as people with disabilities, or those advocating for people with disabilities, to get their voices heard.”

The Office of Sustainability plans to coordinate its work as closely as possible with the Economic Development Department, which Torres-Peralta said is creating a business plan feasibility study for a possible community supported grocery store that would be located somewhere in the Eastern Crescent, where food scarcity is especially concentrated. EDD is currently in the process of selecting a consultant for that process.

With development taking place in many areas that also face food scarcity issues, Torres-Peralta said there are economic and social considerations that have to be taken into account when planning where and how to incentivize grocery stores moving into a community.

“It may be sort of tempting to say, sure, let’s build a grocery store here. We also need to be very careful about how the decisions that we arrive to with the food plan can have unforeseen consequences – such as possibly enabling property values to go up to the point that people eventually get displaced,” he said. “In a way that is something that has already happened in many other parts of the city.”

Photo by Elekes Andor, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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