On February 19, 2019, UT’s Center for Community Engagement hosted its third Front Porch Gathering (FPG) of the 2018-2019 season. The February gathering focused on unpacking the term “food deserts” and brainstorming sustainable interventions that address food insecurity and building healthier and more just communities.
The event was held at the Student Union of Huston-Tillotson University and food was provided by Mr. Natural. Guests in attendance included community residents, students from the University of Texas at Austin and Huston-Tillotson University, health professionals, advocates from local health-based nonprofits and community stakeholders.
The event opened with a video testimony from Dr. Naya Jones and Dr. Kevin Thomas, the co-founders of Food for Black Thought, an action education initiative grounded in Black resilience and cooperative food practice. Dr. Thomas invited the audience to consider the power dynamics impacting food deserts: “How do we see issues around privilege and oppression interacting with people’s everyday experience with food?” Dr. Jones and Dr. Thomas discuss the role capitalism, the idea of maximizing profits, plays in people’s access to food in low-income communities. They also discussed how new businesses that may address food insecurity can raise property values and accelerate gentrification in traditionally marginalized neighborhoods. Dr. Jones urges the audience to reimagine the possibilities for addressing food deserts and consider community-driven solutions.
Afterward, the audience listened to a community testimony from Ms. Marissa Richerson, the Program Coordinator of Urban Roots. Urban Roots is an Austin-based nonprofit that uses farming and agricultural education to empower youth and feed the Austin community. Ms. Richerson began by talking about her previous experiences with food access in Austin, as a farmer and as a resident. She recalled having to often drive several miles from her home to find fresh, organic food, but when she worked at the farmer’s markets or attended meetings that addressed food insecurity, she noticed that she was the only Black person in each of these spaces.
Ms. Richerson acknowledged that “the lack of diversity in nonprofit leadership in Austin is counterproductive to effectively address food issues and leaves the door open for white-saviorism and culturally inappropriate solutions.” She continued to discuss the work of Urban Roots to show how organizations can specifically seek out community members and train them to advocate for what their communities need, including access to healthy food. Unlike many of the farmer’s markets she mentioned, Urban Roots makes it their priority to get their produce in the homes that need it most, donating to local hunger relief organizations, sending their youth volunteers home with produce from their farm, and creating initiatives that incentivize low-income families to use their food benefits, like WIC or SNAP, at their markets.
The final presentation of the evening was by Dr. Erin Lentz, an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, who shared her and her graduate students’ research on local food policy in Austin. During her and Dr. Raj Patel’s year-long Policy Research Project (PRP), “Food for All: Inclusive Neighborhood Food Planning in North Austin,” 15 students worked with the City of Austin’s Office of Sustainability to conduct interviews and focus groups with retailers, residents and experts, and develop inclusive solutions that address Austin’s pressing food insecurity challenges. Dr. Lentz noted that 25% of Austin’s population is food insecure. Food alone, however, will not end hunger. With that in mind, the researchers presented the following policy recommendations to the City of Austin:
(1) Increase the dissemination of culturally appropriate information about healthy food.
(2) Increase the availability of healthy, quality food through existing resources.
(3) Increase accessibility by developing sidewalks, transportation, and support for the elderly.
(4) Increase affordability for residents through the expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Woman Infant and Children (WIC) benefits and other programs.
After Dr. Lentz’s presentation, the assembled community dispersed into four small groups to discuss their individual experiences with food access in Austin and brainstorm various ways the City can equitably leverage its resources to build healthier communities and disrupt inequitable practices. Each group was facilitated by one of the following community leaders:
- Max Elliot, Executive Director of Urban Roots
- Dianna Purcell, Senior Grant Program Manager of Whole Cities Foundation
- Kelsey Abel, Graduate Student at The LBJ School of Public Affairs
- Elliot Smith, Sector Manager of Community Nutrition & Economic Development at GAVA
Some of the key themes discussed in each group are as follows:
- The distinction between terms: Food deserts are neighborhoods where there is little to no access to nutritious food. Food swamps refer to communities that are inundated with unhealthy food, especially fast-food restaurants. Food mirage is the idea that communities are exposed to healthy options, like Whole Foods, but those who need it most cannot afford it. Several participants suggested calling the problem “food apartheid” because it better captures the racial and economic inequities that communities experience.
- Food access should include close proximity, cultural relevance, and cost efficiency.
- There is a strong need for nutrition education in schools. School gardens can help cultivate a long-term relationship between students and healthy food.
- Destigmatize and market food benefits like SNAP and WIC within grocery stores to build sense of community and welcomeness.
- Currently, of the 150,000 people eligible for SNAP in Austin, only 46% are enrolled. The City of Austin and local organizations should collaborate with schools, health clinics, and grocery stores to help inform Austin residents on these benefits.
- Expand food co-ops, like CSA, that are affordable, accessible, and welcoming to low-income communities of color.
- Organize a community-led food festival that offers healthy meals and nutrition resources to Austin residents.
To review the comprehensive notes from each group’s discussion please click here.
The Front Porch Gathering ended with closing remarks from Virginia Cumberbatch, Director of Community Advocacy and Social Equity at UT’s Center for Community Engagement, encouraging the community to continue the conversation and thanking everyone for their contributions.
If you are interested in participating in future Front Porch Gatherings, please see our upcoming event below.
Future Front Porch Gatherings
Cultural Preservation and Place-Making in the Age of Growth and Gentrification
Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Turner Roberts Recreation Center | 7201 Colony Loop Drive, Austin, TX 78724