Food deserts: How Austin is tackling the problem

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a location where people live more than 10 miles away from a large grocery store in rural areas or more than a mile away in urban ones

Produce aisle at a grocery store. (KXAN Photo)
Produce aisle at a grocery store. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — At least once a week, Melvin Green takes a 10-mile drive from his home in Del Valle to a grocery store in East Austin. His trip in traffic sometimes takes around 30 minutes each way, but it is the only way he says he can buy fresh and healthy food at an affordable price that fits his budget. The retired grandfather feeds a family of six, including his wife and four grandsons.

A USDA map of the Austin area shows (in green) several food deserts scattered throughout the city and surrounding communities. (USDA)
A USDA map of the Austin area shows (in green) several food deserts scattered throughout the city and surrounding communities. (USDA)

“We make sure that all of them eat healthy,” said Green. “We try to keep healthy food around like apples, oranges and bananas. Stuff like that. It’s important for them to learn how to eat healthy, that way you don’t have to worry about heart disease.”

Green’s neighborhood does have a small grocery store within a few miles of his home and a convenience store with some food products, but they don’t compare to a grocery store.

“The stores we have here, they’re expensive, and they don’t have a lot of variety of stuff. The only time we use them is if my wife is cooking and needs a tomato or onion. Then I’ll go to the little store here, pick it up and come on back.”

Green lives in a so called “food desert.” The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a location where people live more than 10 miles away from a large grocery store in rural areas or more than a mile away in urban ones. A USDA map of the Austin area shows several food deserts scattered throughout the city and surrounding communities.

Austin’s Multi-Faceted Plan to Combat Food Insecurity

A lack of access to healthy food is part of the reason Austin’s Sustainability Office reports 25 percent of the people living in and around the city are food insecure, or they do not know where their next meal is coming from. A report from the office in June 2016 lists four barriers to food access: availability, affordability, awareness and a lack of transportation.

“The City of Austin recognized that while the city is booming in a lot of ways, there’s a significant percentage of the population that’s still really struggling with some very basic things like whether to pay rent, whether to pay utility bills or whether to buy healthy food,” said Office of Sustainability Food Policy Manger Edwin Marty.

Marty says Austin’s 2017 budget includes $800,000 to be used in combating food insecurity. Part of the money will be used to hire a full time Food Access Coordinator. Another portion of the budget will fund a food environment analysis that will look closely at more than 2,000 food retail locations around the city. Survey teams will record where food stores are located, what type of product they sell and how shoppers access them.

“Our kids aren’t just getting chubby anymore.”

The analysis will take about six months to complete and help produce maps of where food access challenges and food insecurity is highest or greatest. In return, the city can work with retailers to identify and address the community’s needs.

“What retailers are interested in helping us address the community’s needs in these very specific street-by-street situations?” said Marty.

But what happens when retailers don’t feel like there is enough business to open a store in a particular neighborhood? Mobile food markets. Four of Farmshare Austin’s mobile organic food markets hit the streets this fall providing fresh produce from local farmers to shoppers. People who receive federal food assistance get those dollars doubled when they purchase items at the mobile markets.

The city is also putting more money towards supporting small neighborhood corner stores in providing healthy food. A new education outreach effort will also begin with the goal of raising awareness about federal food assistance. The Office of Sustainability reports 43 percent of those people eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Travis County are not enrolled in the program.

Austin’s chapter of the American Heart Association is also working with the city in supporting a particular part of the plan called the Food Access Incubator Fund. The  $100,000 allotted for the program will be used as an incentive for public-private partnerships in redeveloping existing stores or building new stores. The American Heart Association sees a correlation between a lack of access to healthy food and a higher rate of obesity and heart disease, and not just in adults.

“When we talk about adult diseases, your diabetes, heart attacks and strokes, we see more and more of those in these areas,” said Austin American Heart Association Senior Campaign Director Christopher Walker. “We can’t call them adult diseases anymore. It’s happening to children.”

Go! Austin Vamos! Austin zeroes in on the 78744 and 78745 zip codes (southeast and south respectively) to identify people who have a desire to better their communities through increased physical activity and better nutrition.

Gardening Education Efforts

Schools throughout Central Texas have started gardening programs in an effort to raise awareness of healthy eating and address a lack of food access. University of Texas Associate Professor of Nutritional Science Jaimie Davis wants to know how effective those gardening education programs are in improving the actual health of the children involved. She is conducting a $3.5 million 3-year study at 16 Austin-area elementary schools called Texas Sprouts.

During the school year, students become the gardeners and tend to the plants. Davis hopes educating the students at a young age about the benefits of where their food comes from and healthy eating will help combat a disturbing health trend in the United States.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in childhood obesity,” said Davis. “We’re seeing also a huge increase in metabolic diseases associated with childhood obesity. Our kids aren’t just getting chubby anymore, they’re getting a lot more other co-morbidities associated with it—things like type 2 diabetes risk factors and cardiovascular risk factors.”

Not only does Davis hope to see real physical differences in the elementary students by the end of the school year but cognitive differences as well. The Texas Sprouts curriculum is designed to help support what students are learning in the classroom.

“These concepts that they’re learning in the garden directly apply to what they need to learn anyway for their school standards for their standardized tests. So why not also incorporate the health component into it?” said David.

In the program, students go through health screenings at the beginning of the school year, attend 18 nutrition classes, tend to the school garden and are screened again at the end of the year. Researchers will track any changes in student health as well as scores on standardized tests. They will also look at student behavior changes such as a child’s ability to focus on spending time on task.

You can read more about Jaimie Davis’ efforts on Leslie Rhode’s blog.

State and National Efforts to Tackle Food Insecurity

Texas Representative Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and founder of the Texas House Farm-To-Table Caucus authored a bill during the 84th Legislative Session that would have directed the Texas Department of Agriculture to work with public-private partners and set up the Texas Grocery Access Investment Fund program. HB 1485 didn’t pass, but if it had, money from the Investment Fund would have provided financing to build or expand grocery stores in underserved communities in urban and rural low and moderate income areas.

Michelle Obama
First lady Michelle Obama talks with Oneida Gonzalez, right, 5, and Jefferson Lopez-Martinez, left, 5, of CentroNia Daycare Center who participated in events with the “Let’s Move!” campaign (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“I was very disappointed in what happened with the bill in the last session,” said Rep. Rodriguez, who plans to file the same or similar bill in 2017. “The state needs to help the locals out. We need to find more ways to get healthy food into the mouths of people with food insecurity.”

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 directed the USDA to study food deserts. The study, presented to Congress in 2009, showed a small percentage of consumers nationwide have a hard time buying healthy food just because they live far from a grocery store and do not have easy access to transportation. Part of the federal government’s Let’s Move initiative launched in 2010 focused on eliminating food deserts across the country.

Since 2011, the Federal Government has spent almost $500 million to improve food store access in communities that don’t have large grocery stores with a variety of healthy foods according to the American Heart Association. However, research from the USDA has shown building grocery stores in food deserts alone will not address the issue of food choice. In May 2016, the USDA reported proximity to a grocery store has limited impact on diet choices. Household and neighborhood resources, education and taste preferences may be more important in determining what types of foods people eat.

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