The State of Austin Food

by Steve Wilson

Austin sports an impressive 6,000 restaurants, 1,000 food trailers and seemingly countless raves from adoring foodies. But on the flipside of this culinary scene, the numbers aren’t as rosy. Twenty-five percent of Travis County children are food insecure, meaning their parents don’t know where they’ll get their next meal. Five Austin zip codes don’t even have a single grocery store and 25 percent of Austinites are obese.

“There’s almost a tale of two cities in Austin,” says Edwin Marty, Austin’s first-ever food policy manager in the Office of Sustainability. “The restaurants deserve the respect they’ve been given, but a lot of people can’t afford to eat at them.”

Marty released the “State of the Food System Report” in April to capture all available data on the way Austinites make, eat and dispose of food—from the Franklin’s line to the SNAP line. He says it takes that level of perspective to give policymakers and the public the reality check they need to make better decisions about the area’s $4.1 billion food economy. For instance, though Austin boasts 52 community gardens and no shortage of small urban farms, Travis County, as a whole, grows less than 1 percent of its own food.

Meanwhile, the ongoing drought (not withstanding this year’s unusually rainy months), burgeoning population growth and number of farmers nearing retirement age dim Austin’s agricultural prospects considerably, despite what you see at farmers markets.

That’s not to say the report is a total bummer: Marty has made sure to point out the positive solutions that 18 of the City’s departments have undertaken to help fix food in Austin—such as Watershed Protection helping to create some of the teaching gardens in 73 percent of AISD schools. “The department realizes that to protect the watershed, you have to get people interested at a young age in growing food and seeing how water fits into the cycle of life,” says Marty.

Until it’s time to update the report in a few years, Marty plans to talk grub at the neighborhood level—showing communities within Austin how to have a say in the restaurants, groceries and gardens they live with every day. “Most food systems are controlled from the top down,” he says. “But we want to show communities that they have the tools to make changes that better reflect their values.”  

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