While Austin is known throughout the nation for its restaurants and its burgeoning food scene, the lesser known side of the city is that it contains significant areas that lack access to healthy, affordable foods that is impacting the health of local residents.
Nearly a quarter of Austin’s census areas were listed as urban “food deserts”—due to income levels of residents and the distance they live from stores that sell healthy foods. As a result, many residents have relied on less healthy foods sold at convenience stores, restaurants and corner stores.
Lack of access to healthy food is part of the reason the City of Austin reported that 25 percent of the people living in the Austin area are food insecure, a significant contributing factor for unhealthy weight in both children and adults. Overall, Texas has the eighth highest adult obesity rate in the nation, having risen to 33.7 percent, up from 21.7 percent in 2000 and from 10.7 percent in 1990. Those facts led health and food advocates to work with the city to dedicate significant dollars to help improve access to healthy and affordable foods and thereby reduce some of the food insecurities residents are facing.
“In 2016, the city passed a resolution to establish a working group to help address food-access challenges,” says Christopher Walker, senior campaign director of advocacy for the American Heart Association in Austin. “That working group led to a recommendation that the city establish a healthy food financing initiative to help fund grocery stores, healthy corner stores and mobile markets.”
Walker says that one of the early champions of the effort was city councilwoman Delia Garza, whose district lacked a major grocery store and contained one of the city’s largest areas that lacked access to healthy foods.
“She had long understood the problem her constituents faced, and we spoke to her about how a healthy food financing initiative could help address that problem. As a result, she became our biggest champion,” he says.
As a result, Austin’s 2017 budget dedicated $800,000 to help address food insecurity in the city. The dollars will be used to hire a food access coordinator, conduct a detailed food environment analysis, increase access to SNAP, and provide direct dollars to existing or planned retail food outlets. Walker says that the most likely and effective use of the dollars is to open large grocery stores or retrofit existing stores to better meet the needs of residents residing in the areas that lack access to healthy foods. He also says that part of the overall effort to improve healthy eating in Austin is to also focus on the consumer.
“We need to target the demand side as well as the supply side. For example, we are exploring ways to make SNAP dollars go twice as far,” he says.