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Food plan committee balancing inflation worries against long-term needs

Thursday, January 19, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

With food prices remaining persistently high as overall inflation levels continue to ease, the cost of food is likely to be one of many issues discussed in the coming weeks by the new group that will steer the creation of Austin’s first-ever area food plan.

The Office of Sustainability has selected the 25 members of the community advisory committee that will begin meeting next week to set the framework– including the core areas of concern – for the food plan that will be delivered in 2024. City staff began working on the vision for the plan last year with the goal of addressing needs such as the ongoing disappearance of farmland, the area’s vulnerability to natural disasters disrupting food supply, and the $2.3 billion annual gap between how much food is consumed locally versus what is produced.

Edwin Marty, the city’s food policy manager, said the new group made up of farmers, community gardeners, food processors and retailers will begin by looking at more than a dozen city plans that involve food availability. From there, they will look at the most important areas of concern for the plan that is expected to have a five-year horizon.

“There’s no question that inflation is going to be a huge part of the conversation along with supply chain,” he said. “Those along with climate planning and climate change, and supply chain issues related to natural disasters, are the things that I hear about over and over again from the broader community.”

Beyond the formation of the committee, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted last month to join the city in the food planning process, bringing more funding and resources to the community engagement activities that will take place over much of 2023. The public engagement work is being handled locally by Cortez Consulting and the Dell Medical School’s Department of Population Health.

Also of concern, Marty said organizations such as the Central Texas Food Bank have been severely impacted in recent months by a drop in food donations from grocers and other food retailers because those businesses have optimized their procurement processes and have less excess supply to provide to charities. That in turn has caused food banks to turn to the private marketplace to meet the demand for food, at a time when higher prices give them less buying power.

“You couple inflation with a pretty significant decrease in donated food to the food bank, and we over the next year are looking at some real challenges for the average person looking to get the food they need onto their table. That’s going to take some really out-of-the-box thinking to solve not just locally, but nationally.”

Karen Magid, a member of the new committee that will help shape the food planning process, said one of the biggest challenges will be deciding on the best food system for the area.

“There isn’t a perfect answer of what does a perfect food system look like, and whether you define that locally, regionally or with the state, with one clear boundary to make it an easier question,” said Magid, who is also a member of the Austin-Travis County Food Policy Board. “It’s going to have many facets and there’s going to be food insecurity, the business support that ties into that, and then everything about how food ties into culture. We can’t take every single thing we should be doing locally and putting it into this plan, because we’ll use this to advance the directions where we want to go.”

With regard to the inflation concerns and the sudden pinch felt by food banks, Magid said the plan will likely need to have a long-term focus, with the city and county in the position to step in to handle more immediate needs.

“We should think about what would it look like to have a food system that eliminates food insecurity, is responsive and attentive to the environment, and has fair labor from top to bottom. That vision gets away from immediate things like inflation because we can’t wait for this plan to do everything … there’s going to be things we need to do and address much sooner.”

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