It’s well known at Austin City Hall that the Council’s strongest advocate for increased access to healthy food is Council Member Delia Garza. But, it’s an issue Garza did not fully understand until she decided to run for the District 2 seat. Garza said, “I found out there had been a study done on childhood obesity in the Dove Springs area, which is one of the neighborhoods I represent now. I read that study and it was just so eye-opening and alarming, the fact that this one area had a very high percentage of obese children and there was discussion in there about food deserts. Frankly, that was the first time I had heard there was a thing called a food desert,” said Garza.
After Garza was elected, she noticed that when she spoke to people who lived in the part of Del Valle that’s within Austin city limits, they often expressed concern about not having a large grocery store in that area to give them convenient access to affordable, healthy food. She called meetings with City staffers and grocery store executives to find out if anything could be done to change that. Garza learned there are metrics (kept confidential as trade secrets) those executives use to determine where to build stores, which according to them, Del Valle did not satisfy.
She also learned that small, corner and convenience stores typically don’t carry fresh fruits and vegetables because it’s too difficult and cost prohibitive to maintain that inventory. If they do, the prices are usually very high.
Armed with this information, Garza set out on a mission to determine how City funding and resources could be used to bring more healthy food access to low-income areas of Austin. Garza sponsored a resolution in March to focus City resources on food access, which will become an area of focus for the City’s newly formed Equity Office. That resolution directed the City Manager to convene a stakeholder group to explore options for improving food access in underserved areas. The resolution passed. A few months later, staff delivered a response that included these recommendations:
- Complete a Food Environment Analysis.This would allow the City to gain a more accurate understanding of where food deserts exist, who is living in them, and the overall public health impact for Austin.
- Expand Healthy Food Retail Initiatives.This program would support small business and community development projects by offering flexible capital and/or technical assistance to grocery stores, food hubs, mobile food retailers, farmers markets, neighborhood food-buying cooperatives, etc. in communities with limited nutritious food availability. Council provided $400,000 in funding for this.
- Increase Urban Food Production.The stakeholders recommended that the City invest more money and staffing to expand and improve the community gardens program and explore more ways to use City land for healthy food production.
- Pilot a Nutritious Food Incentive Program.This called for continuation of a program that allows low-income residents to get double credit when they use SNAP, WIC or FMNP funds at farmers’ markets. They also recommended that the program expand to include healthy foods purchased from brick and mortar markets.
- Develop a Coordinated Awareness Campaign About Nutritious Food Resources.They recommended money and resources be allocated to ensure that qualified families took advantage of the SNAP program. Also, identify additional opportunities to subsidize the cost of nutritious food for prioritized zip codes.
- Create Safe Routes to Markets.Ensure that residents are able to gain access to providers of healthy foods using sidewalks, safe intersections and public transportation.
While Council has not implemented all of these recommendations, it did allocate $400,000 in the City’s 2016-17 budget to fund healthy food access initiatives. As Garza explains in the video below, she’s pleased that the issue of healthy food access didn’t get tabled.