Despite Austin’s rapid economic growth, over 200,000 of our neighbors lack reliable access to affordable, nutritious food—including 20 percent of children in Travis County. However, Austin’s Food Policy Manager Edwin Marty and Sarah Stein-Lobovits of Austin Public Health—along with a diverse group of community organizations and stakeholders—are working hard to change that.
After more than a year of exhaustive research, analysis and coordination, Marty and Stein-Lobovits presented the “Austin Healthy Food Access Initiative” report to City Council in July of 2016. The report outlines a systems approach to tackling Austin’s food-access challenges and steers clear of simple solutions. According to Marty, “Food insecurity is an exceptionally complex challenge because it involves getting to the root causes of multiple overlapping issues. Any comprehensive solution has to address a diverse range of issues head-on, from agricultural production to food processing and distribution, to education, to affordable housing and safer sidewalks. Good public policy can’t treat these issues in isolation.”
Stein-Lobovits, who served in Teach for America in the Rio Grande Valley before pursuing a career in public health, agrees with Marty and highlights that the City of Austin wants to create an economically sustainable solution. “We don’t want to create a situation in which fresh, healthy food is seen as a luxury item driving costs higher in middle and more working-class neighborhoods,” she says. “We want to create business opportunities and improve community health by helping existing businesses—corner stores, grocery stores and farm stands—succeed. We even want to create new business opportunities for farmers and food businesses. We see our work as intersecting health, economic development and food policy. Targeted and well-planned policies can accomplish goals on multiple fronts.”
Beginning in 2017, the City is teaming up with the Fair Food Network (a Michigan-based organization spearheaded by organic food champion Oran Hesterman) to explore options for bringing its successful Double Up Food Bucks program into grocery stores and small retail outlets in Austin. The program is a national model—active in nearly 20 states—that helps low-income Americans bring home more healthy food while supporting family farmers and growing local economies. Double Up Food Bucks allows recipients of SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) to double their benefits when they buy fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables at participating grocery stores, corner stores and farmers markets. While so-called SNAP incentive programs have existed for over a decade, the strategy gained prominence in 2014 when a bipartisan group in Congress created the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Program—a competitive grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to support state and local SNAP incentive programs. According to research conducted by the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC), a national coalition representing America’s 8,600 farmers markets, during FINI’s first year the program was responsible for 20 to 40 million additional servings of fruits and vegetables for SNAP households at farmers markets alone.
Here in Austin, the Sustainable Food Center (SFC) runs a similar incentive project, SFC Double Dollars, at local farmers markets, farm stands, and mobile markets with funding from private foundations and the City of Austin. Fair Food Network is assisting the City in exploring how to expand this program so that it both supports local farmers and increases the buying power for lower-income communities in the places where they already shop. While multi-year large cohort studies of FINI are ongoing, 80 percent of participants in California’s Market Match program—an incentive program that began in 2009—report that their family’s health has improved because of the program. “By increasing the purchasing power of SNAP, shoppers keep money in the local economy,” says Kate Fitzgerald, advisor for Fair Food Network. “SNAP incentives create economic demand for fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income communities where grocery stores and farmers markets haven’t been able to turn a profit. It’s a market-based solution in which the incentive works both ways—SNAP shoppers are incentivized to buy fresh local produce while food retailers and farmers are drawn by the profit motive to expand to traditionally underserved markets.”
Texas farmers face a host of challenges—from a famously punishing climate to cheap produce imports from Mexico and California. According to a recent report published by the USDA, Texas lags far behind other states in local food sales. In 2015, Texas farmers sold only $357 million in agricultural products directly to consumers, compared to $2.8 billion in California. If current trends hold, Texas will soon be overtaken by Vermont (population 626,000) for sixth in the nation in total farm-direct sales. Marty and Stein-Lobovits believe that creating new markets and business opportunities for Texas farmers and health-food retailers in Austin must be central to the City’s food policy work. To that end, the City of Austin’s Office of Sustainability is leading a coordinated strategy in conjunction with the largest food-buying institutions in Austin (the school district, the University of Texas and the COA Convention Center, with other institutions possibly joining soon) to collectively advance its Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP). The goal of GFPP is to aggregate institutional demand for food that is sourced from local sustainable farmers, support fair labor practices and animal welfare, and provide the community with highly nutritious meals.
In addition, the City is coordinating with SFC, Farmshare Austin, GAVA (Go Austin!/Vamos Austin!) and other agriculture and food organizations to implement Fresh for Less, alternative food access programs such as mobile markets, farm stands and corner stores. Fresh for Less helps communities across the “eastern crescent” of Austin access nutritious and affordable locally produced food. Farmshare—a nonprofit organization located on a 10-acre certified-organic farm in eastern Travis County that focuses on accelerating organic farming knowledge—made headlines recently when it partnered with H-E-B after the grocery store giant recently purchased land in Austin’s Del Valle neighborhood. Farmshare plans to work with H-E-B to further its three-part mission of educating the next generation of farmers, providing fresh, locally grown produce to food-insecure Austinites, and caring for the land. “The work that Farmshare Austin is doing is phenomenal,” says Stein-Lobovits. “They’re growing in a deliberate way to tackle both the production and supply sides of food access in Central Texas.”
Marty and Stein-Lobovits emphasize the economic development dimension of the City of Austin’s work on food-access issues. “We want to keep as much of the money that the City Council appropriated for food access in the Austin foodshed as possible,” says Marty. “If we have the opportunity to generate real income for Texas farmers and Austin food businesses while simultaneously addressing food insecurity, that’s the kind of comprehensive and sustainable solution the City of Austin is looking for.”
By Alex Canepa • Photograph courtesy of Sustainable Food Center
Find a list of healthy food program resources and contact information as well as farm stand and mobile market locations and schedules at edibleaustin.com