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City seeks applicants to help craft five-year food system plan

Friday, October 14, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The city has opened its application process for members of the advisory committee that will help the Office of Sustainability draft a comprehensive food plan for the city, with the goal of addressing food insecurity for vulnerable Austin residents.

The Community Development Commission, which focuses on issues related to marginalized communities, received an update on progress drafting the plan which was called for in a June 2021 resolution from City Council. The item directed the city manager to put in place a five-year plan addressing issues such as food access programs, financing options to address historic food disparities and improve the area’s overall resilience related to food availability.

Edwin Marty, the city’s food policy manager, said the plan is still in its initial stages and is scheduled for Council adoption in early 2024. The Community Advisory Committee that is being formed will spend roughly a year examining the state of the local food system and identify the most important problems and gaps the city needs to correct, with a draft plan expected next fall.

Marty said while the Austin area has some of the best restaurants and grocery stores of any city its size, it is quickly losing farmland to residential and commercial development. Real estate prices and planning issues also play into the fact that Austin only has 10 food processing facilities in the surrounding five-county region, while the Dallas area has more than 100.

“In addition to food insecurity we’re also facing some other significant challenges in our food system including a significant loss of farmland across Central Texas,” he said. “Development is occurring primarily on prime farmland that has the soil most adapted for producing food. As a result we’re seeing a significant decrease in local food production versus consumption.”

The persistent food scarcity problems in poorer areas are worsened with disasters such as Winter Storm Uri in early 2021, though Marty noted the Austin Independent School District showed impressive resources and capabilities to help families in need during the storm and should be involved in the enhancement of the local food system.

Eyeing the business possibilities involved in food access, Marty said current data show there is a $2.3 billion gap between the food produced in the Austin area versus how much is consumed locally. Another economic issue tied to food and equity is the fact that 87 percent of the farms in the area are owned by white residents, which closes off opportunities for communities of color to build wealth related to food production and have heavy involvement in addressing scarcity concerns.

One source of help could be newly created federal programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which Marty said has “unleashed a tremendous amount of funding for things that have been advocated for our local food systems for years.”

Commissioner Heidi Sloan said the plan needs to target service workers and other low-wage residents, many of whom may work in hospitality or retail settings where food transactions take place.

“I would look forward to seeing some sort of analysis and talking points that can dive into the average income for these different food system sectors and for the folks who work there,” she said. “We talk about food distribution and bringing more manufacturers to Austin and how there might not be folks who are willing to work, but we have to ask ourselves why that might be and how we could get those jobs to be seen as a sustainable option for the folks that we serve.”

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