AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new report from Austin’s sustainability office shows the lasting impact of the pandemic on the city’s food system.
It found over 14% of people in Travis County are facing food insecurity or when a person lacks reliable access to enough affordable or nutritious foods. The rate increased from 12.8% in 2019 to 17% in 2020.
This is the office’s first food report since the pandemic. Before then, food insecurity rates were trending downward, but COVID-19 effects caused destabilization and a large migration out of Austin for low-income people, the city’s food policy manager Edwin Marty said.
“COVID came along and inverted that trend and really destabilized the foundation of the economy, essentially,” Marty said. “So we saw an immediate increase in food insecurity — a really substantial increase.”
“Probably the most important thing in the food system report is that recognition that while things have improved for a lot of people, we have substantial economic barriers for people really thriving and staying in our community,” Marty said.
As a step further than the report, the sustainability office plans to create the city’s first-ever Food Plan. It will gather input from the community and stakeholders to document their voices and create a set of recommendations for moving forward.
He said changes need to improve communities without destabilizing them. For example, adding a grocery store into a neighborhood with a food desert creates access to food, but unintentionally could raise the costs of living for renters.
“If those projects result in the destabilization of a community — causing their low-income populations to have to leave their homes to move to more affordable places — I don’t think that we’re doing the best thing that we can do,” Marty said.
Marty said the plan is expected to wrap up at the beginning of 2024. People can fill out the Food Plan interest form online if they are looking to get involved with the plan.
Lack of local foods
One long-term goal is to increase local food production. The report found about 0.6% of Travis County’s food is locally grown. This includes food from over 1,000 private Travis County farms, 53 community gardens, 218 school gardens, three food forests and home gardens.
Marty said this local production rate is much lower than comparable cities like Denver or Miami. He said available, prime farmland is easiest to develop for an area that is having a housing crisis.
In addition, Marty said local ranching is “a critical part of our future,” because good ranching practices can reduce our area’s carbon footprint. The 2022 report for the first time looked at how food is impacting Austin’s climate. It found food created 21% of local greenhouse gas emissions.
Marty added there is a lack of processing facilities in Central Texas. This means ranchers or farmers likely need to send products out to be processed, which increases costs.
“We think that there’s an incredible opportunity to create a processing facility that’s local to Austin, where [for example] a local farmer could be producing sweet potatoes, have them processed, frozen and then sold to a local school district.”
A federal waiver to provide free meals during the pandemic to all students regardless of income expired for the current school year. Austin ISD will provide free meals to all students at 76 of its 125 schools, but other schools and districts will require families to submit applications for free or reduced lunches.
Marty said this will be an issue the long-term Food Plan will look at. But it will be difficult to address at the local level, because school food decisions often require state or federal policy.
He said this change will likely increase food insecurity because of the stigma attached to free and reduced lunches.
“What the data shows is that students that do need assistance are going to be much less likely to eat that food, and they don’t want to be labeled as poor kids,” he said.