With Election Day 6 1/2 weeks away, three candidates running to represent Southeast Austin on City Council gathered virtually Sept. 16 to unpack their positions on some of the area’s most pressing issues.

Candidates David Chincanchan, Vanessa Fuentes and Alex Strenger joined moderator Carol Eckelkamp from the League of Women Voters for the nonpartisan organization’s first virtual City Council candidate panel of the election season. Casey Ramos, who has filed to run for the seat, was absent from the discussion.

Over the course of an hour, the trio answered 10 questions from Eckelkamp that touched on the nuances of city’s southeastern District 2. The candidates come from a range of backgrounds. Chincanchan, 30, grew up in Dove Springs and has spent nearly the last decade in local politics, from Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s congressional campaigns to City Council officers. Fuentes, a 33-year-old Texas native, spent the last six years focused on health care policies and access with the American Heart Association. The 34-year-old Strenger works as a pedicab driver in Austin and ran for mayor in 2018.

District 2 has a variety of unique issues. Much of the area is categorized as a food desert, meaning residents do not live within reasonable proximity to a grocery store. Eckelkamp focused on food access. She noted H-E-B bought land in Southeast Austin back in 2016 as part of the 7 million-square-foot Velocity mixed-use development but that the supermarket chain has recently said it has no plans of putting a store in Southeast Austin anytime soon.

Strenger said the city should have been tougher in demanding a timeline for a grocery store before providing the development permits for the project. He noted the disparity he said he has seen in food options between the H-E-B near William Cannon and I-35, toward the western edge of District 2, and the H-E-Bs in wealthier parts of town, such as the Mueller development. He said the city had to be more proactive in incentivizing local, sustainable farms to bring healthier produce options to Southeast Austin grocery stores and schools and proposed town halls for the area that teach people how to sustainably grow their own food.

Chincanchan said, as a Dove Springs native, he was familiar with the lack of food access and blamed “decades and decades of institutional neglect” that have left the community vulnerable to unhealthy conditions. He pointed to his experience working with the local Women, Infants and Children program that works with the most food insecure populations and said as City Council staffer with District 3 City Council Member Pio Renteria he worked to improve food access to East and Southeast Austin. He called food insecurity “one of my top priorities.”

Fuentes called food access a top priority and said she worked on “food justice” and improving food access not just locally but across the state during her time with the American Heart Association. Fuentes said she has been working with the Del Valle Community Coalition to pressure H-E-B to break ground on the grocery store within the Velocity development. She told Community Impact Newspaper that pressure increased when H-E-B committed $1 million to addressing racial inequity in June but still failed to commit to the Southeast Austin store.

Fuentes criticized H-E-B’s formula of “waiting for an arbitrary number of rooftops” and said, as a City Council member, should would push for a co-op model of grocery stores for the area, which she said would empower the community.

Residents can watch the full video of the candidate Q&A. Election Day is Nov. 3, and early voting runs from Oct. 13-30.