Last fall, a group of St. Edward’s University students identified a problem in Austin. Despite the city being a booming tech hub and one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, 15% of the population could not easily access fresh, healthy food.
As part of the university’s Civics Lab, a political science program that identifies and solves important public policy challenges, about 50 students got to work to find solutions to this issue affecting Black, Latino and elderly residents and low-income families.
Some of the students handled community outreach, and others worked on research and built relationships with elected officials to draft a policy that could be implemented in Austin.
Their work paid off.
The Austin City Council on Thursday approved a resolution aimed at addressing food insecurity in the city by increasing the frequency of bus routes leading to grocery stores and creating maps that identify healthy food options on bus routes, among other initiatives. The resolution, championed by Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, was inspired by the students’ work.
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“Our young leaders are having a say in public policy, and they are learning how we can improve and impact change within our communities,” said Fuentes, whose district includes food-insecure areas in Austin. “As a City Council, we’re encouraging CapMetro to update their maps and app with information on where bus riders can go for healthy food and ensuring that folks are prepared with that knowledge. Knowledge is power. This is an important step in reducing barriers to food access.”
What the resolution will do
The resolution would increase the frequency of CapMetro bus routes connecting food-insecure areas to grocery stores. The plan also calls for CapMetro to place grocery stores, food pantries and farmers markets on transit maps, as well as allow people to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, through the Capital Metro app.
Once it is approved by CapMetro officials, public transit buses will also have audio and visual announcements about healthy food options for passengers on board when they stop at or near grocery stores. The information will be available in multiple languages.
On Thursday, Council Member Mackenzie Kelly added an amendment to the resolution to map out all Austin area schools that provide free and reduced-price meal programs. The amendment to the resolution was inspired by her own experiences growing up, Kelly said during the meeting.
“As I am well aware, growing up as a student who utilized free and reduced lunch meal programs, the effects of food insecurity on children and families spills into their everyday lives, including time spent at school, work and their overall health,” Kelly said.
About 14.7% of Austin residents experienced food insecurity in 2021, according to city data. In 2019 in Travis County, 12.8% of families experienced food insecurity, which was higher than the national average of 10.9%. When the coronavirus pandemic struck
Austin in 2020, food insecurity increased to 17%.
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The students’ research found that, in Austin, 33 areas are classified as “food deserts” or food-insecure areas, where at least 500 people or 33% of the population live far from a grocery store.
According to the Department of Agriculture’s food access atlas, these areas in the city sit almost entirely east of Interstate 35, which is a historical dividing line separating low-income neighborhoods with Black and Hispanic residents from the rest of Austin.
“Communities that lack access to healthy food suffer from far higher rates of health conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes,” the Civics Lab proposal and research state. “Communities that are disproportionately affected by food insecurity are low-income and communities of color, ultimately creating significant health disparities within Austin.”
Additionally, the number of car owners is dwindling in Austin, “fostering a heavier dependence on and demand for reliable and efficient public transportation,” the proposal and research state.
‘You can impact change’
This was the first time the majority of the Civics Lab students worked on public policy issues.
The project has inspired them to fearlessly engage with and ask questions of local government, as well as to take action, they said.
“It’s very fulfilling. I feel like that’s a goal in my own life, to make a difference as much as possible,” said Katie Gay, 19, an environmental science and policy major, who worked on community outreach for the project. “Others are going to be very benefited from what we’re trying to accomplish, which inspires me to continue steps toward increasing awareness on this topic.”
Through the project’s research and outreach, Jasmine Jimerson, 21, got a better understanding of the disparities in food access across the city.
“It’s really empowering to see that anyone can make these changes and be involved,” Jimerson said. “I never thought I would get to do something like this, on this large scale. All these people in my class and in the community really came together and worked really hard for this. It shows that you can impact change.”
15% of Austin faces food insecurity. A St. Edward’s student project could be part of the solution
Before moving on to their next project — which would answer the question of whether public schools are equitably funded — the St. Edward’s students will work with City Council members and CapMetro officials to implement the policy.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Kathie Tovo, José “Chito” Vela, and Ann Kitchen co-sponsored the resolution.
The measure additionally directs the city manager to work with nonprofit organizations that support food access in Austin to conduct a study assessing how to better connect low-access communities to grocery stores.
Austin nonprofit organizations and groups advocating for food access — such as Keep Austin Fed, the Sustainable Food Center and the American Heart Association Austin — supported the resolution.
“Nutrition security is an important tool for equity, as it builds mental and physical health and well-being, particularly important for those who have been marginalized and have great societal obstacles to overcome,” Catalina Berry, community impact director with the American Heart Association, said in a statement. “The American Heart Association Austin is working with council members and civic leaders to reach the community where they live to ensure that everyone can lead a longer, healthier life.”
Austin American-Statesman reporter Natalia Contreras can be reached at 512-626-4036 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook, @NataliaECG.