For some Austin residents, there is no such thing as a "quick trip to the store"
EXAMINING AUSTIN'S FOOD DESERTS AND SOLUTIONS TO THE ISSUE
by Olivia Leitch
The USDA defines a food desert as an area with a significant lack of access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods. This is largely due to the lack of close by grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.
More specifically, an area is considered a food desert if more than 500 low-income city residents live over a mile from a grocery store.
Austin has several large neighborhoods that have been marked as food deserts in the last couple of years, specifically in east and south Austin.
Delia Garza, the newly elected councilmember from Del Valle, told the Austin American-Statesman that some members of her community “have to drive to Bastrop to go to the closest grocery store.” Del Valle is in the southeastern part of Austin and includes annexed areas such as the airport.
Living in East Austin, Allen Rogers, owner of the Rosewood Community Market, could not help but notice a scarcity of easily accessible produce and food.
"Even for a working, middle-class young white person it was hard to find food here - even with gas money," Rogers said. "I realized people who didn't have that at their disposal were probably really struggling with this."
"Third party organizations that come in here don't know what the community needs, and they don't know how to address it," Rogers said.
For Rogers, the solution was not far behind. Rosewood Community Market opened in the spring of 2013, and since then, the man behind this small local grocery has been working hard to serve his community through supplying fresh produce and pantry items at prices that rival those of big-time grocery store chains.
Dove Springs is another one of these areas with limited access to fresh grocers. It also statistically has the lowest average income and highest crime rate. It is an area hungry for food access and nutrition education.
Urban Patchwork is an organization founded four years ago in Austin to help families and neighbors in small communities turn unused yard space into farmland in order to help solve the issue of the food desert.
Urban Patchwork’s first effort in Dove Springs began two years ago to help supply food and build a community as a means to solving the food desert crisis. This is part of a cultural change to reinstate the notion that food is a natural right, not a privilege.
Elena, the project coordinator for one of the gardens in Dove Springs, said the goal for the new community garden is a teaching garden. As seen in many other Urban Patchwork gardens, neighbors start to work side by side learning how to grow their own food and will then take that skill and camaraderie back to their own back yards.
The local children who help the Urban Patchwork volunteers are learning more about the importance of growing healthy food and are the momentum of a cultural shift towards neighborhood growing, buying, and selling.
Urban Roots is another organization that sees the importance in getting youth involved in changing the way Austinites see food access.
According to Leigh Gaymon-Jones, the Director of Operations, Urban Roots is a non-profit organization located in Austin that "provides leadership opportunities and empowering opportunities for young people from all around the city."
"We're using farming and food as our tool to create leaders. A really strong secondary objective is to get food into the community and to get it to people who can afford it and to people who cannot," said Gaymon-Jones.
The Urban Roots Farm Intern program focuses on youth development and empowerment and each intern is paid a stipend for helping out at the Urban Roots farm, volunteering at hunger relief organizations, and working at farmer's markets.
An important pillar in Urban Root's education program is sustainable agriculture. The interns are taught about planting and harvesting, as well as the importance of maintaining a sustainable food system that provides access to fresh and nutritious foods for everyone.
The interns learn how to sort and clean the freshly harvested beats, preparing them for sale. Urban Roots commits 40% of its harvest to efforts supporting hunger relief, donating to local soup kitchens and food banks. The other 60% goes to market.
What has been designated as a big, green, blocked-off food desert on USDA maps is, at ground level, a community full of grassroots efforts that have come together to one day flood the desert with accessible food options.
Where are Austin's food deserts?
Data courtesy of the USDA Food Access Research Atlas