Austin Food Desert Issue

Citizens Denied Access to Necessities


Vegetable vacancy: These store shelves are lined with leafy greens, but not every resident of Austin is able to access the added health benefits they offer. People who don’t consume enough vegetables are susceptible to ailments such as diverticulosis and dehydration. photo by Ella Lily.

Amelia Coleman, Graphic Editor

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a 5 tier model of human necessities, which is ranked most important on the bottom to least important at the top. On this hierarchy, food is right there at the bottom, showing it is one of the most important things needed for our survival and the foundation to all other aspects of life. So why should we deny people that necessity and let food deserts continue to be prevalent in many cities? 

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a low-income area where a substantial number of residents do not have easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Food deserts exist because of inequalities in income level. Some people who live in low-income neighborhoods have limited funds to purchase fresh produce, so vendors worry their produce would go bad or not make enough profit for them. Food retailers therefore see an investment risk in opening stores in low-income areas, resulting in limited access to food at corner stores and fast food joints.

  Around 39.5 mil­lion peo­ple in the United States live in food deserts, according to the Anne E. Casey foundation, a charitable organization that is one of the leading organizations centered around child welfare issues in the U.S. The lack of grocery stores can have a major impact on the health of residents because limited food sources can force people to buy foods that are more caloric and higher in fat. Medical News Today found that people in food deserts have heightened risks of diet-related conditions, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. Governments need to combat food deserts because everyone should have access to fresh, nutritious food that nourishes and makes lives better. 

One example of the government in Austin helping to fight food deserts took place on March 3, 2016. Austin’s City Council passed Resolution 20160303-020, which prompted the city manager to develop a plan to combat the city’s food deserts. They ended up with a six-step program to try to counter this problem. It included doing a comprehensive Food Environment Analysis, expanding healthy food initiatives, increasing local food production, widely introducing a Nutritious Food Incentives Program, improving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) outreach, and creating Safe Routes to Markets. Much progress has been made, such as the forming of Fresh For Less Market, a program that brings locally grown produce and healthy groceries to people at reduced prices ( Another way the city of Austin has been combating food deserts is with the Healthy Corner Store program. This program has worked closely with corner stores to help them offer more healthy food options. This works through the City of Austin offering subsidies on nutritious foods if the stores meet a minimum order requirement for these foods. They will continue to subsidize these goods for a year. 

One way to reduce food deserts is to incentivise large grocery stores to put down roots in these areas. The incentives would likely be in the form of subsidies on essential foods to offset the losses that these businesses believe they could face when selling in low-income neighborhoods. Bringing in large food retailers would also provide an economic boost to the community through better paying jobs. However, the amount of time these subsidies would need to be continued is a big question that arises out of this solution. There are some organizations that don’t need incentives, though. The Go Austin/Vamos Austin (GAVA) organization  has been attempting to help with one of the largest food deserts in Austin: Dove Springs. This initiative has been working closely with business owners and residents of the Dove Springs area to help minimize the negative effects food injustice has on members of these neighborhoods. For example, just this year on Sep. 1, GAVA partnered with the City of Austin to launch a healthy, non-profit grocery store that would be setup in East Austin and that would combat food insecurity in that area.

Another way to address food deserts is to incentivise smaller food retailers, like gas stations or convenience stores, to sell fresh and healthy food options. Many corner stores do not stock fresh produce, and since these retailers are often the main source of groceries in food deserts, families are left with few healthy options. Many cities and local governments can try to combat the issue by providing monetary incentives like subsidies to small food retailers for meeting requirements in the fresh produce they sell. The subsidies would be on the fresh produce in this example. Although gentrification could be a concern if large supermarket chains move into low-income areas, helping local small businesses provide healthier options could avoid this problem.

A final way to combat food deserts could be by bringing the food sources directly to neighborhoods, either by farmers markets or community gardens. Locally funded community gardens help these neighborhoods access fresh produce, although the yield would be too small to support a large population. Farmers markets bring produce to neighborhoods and give residents a variety of different choices through different farm vendors. Shopping at farmers markets can be expensive, which is a drawback to this suggestion. However, since many people in these neighborhoods are low-income, they might have access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This program can help these families pay for their food and can often be used at farmers markets.

Outside of Austin, many things are being done to combat food deserts. In Louisville, the government has partnered with the non-profit New Roots to create the Fresh Stop Market Program. This program has community members combine money and SNAP credit in order to purchase shares of local food from farmers. The Fresh Stop Market Program launches markets, gathers families who want to become shareholders, and those shareholders receive fresh and healthy food in return. In 2008, Minneapolis required corner stores to carry staple foods, including eggs, grains, milk, and other fresh produce. Since then, Minneapolis has continued to address this problem with each new initiative they create, and have also ensured store owners know how to properly care for and market healthy produce. Because these initiatives have been so successful, they would be great models for Austin to look to and take inspiration from. Whatever solutions communities are able to come up with, they need to come fast. Food deserts are debilitating and can cause chronic health problems, so it’s a race against the clock to find a fix so these issues will affect the least amount of people possible.