Facing food insecurity in Southwest Austin

Food insecurity—defined as not knowing where your next meal will come from—affects families and individuals throughout the city, including parts of Southwest Austin.

Austin Councilwoman Delia Garza said addressing food insecurity is among her top priorities for city council District 2, which includes Southwest and Southeast Austin. The issue is intertwined with obesity, as people often pick foods that are easily accessible but not always healthy, she said. District 2 has high concentrations of childhood obesity and food deserts areas with less access to healthy, affordable food, she said.

"I think a lot of people in the community don't realize what a big problem it is and how many families are affected by the ability to get to a close grocery store ... and buy food," she said.

A report released in January by the Center for Public Policy Priorities states 1.7 million households in Texas struggled to put food on the table in 2013, one of the highest rates in the U.S.

Facing food insecurity in Southwest AustinThe face of hunger

The Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, headquartered in Southwest Austin, serves a 21-county area and distributed 31 million pounds of food last year, President and CEO Hank Perret said. The need is such that the nonprofit plans to break ground on a new location later this year with more warehouse space.

"People have a perception of what the face of hunger looks like, and they think its the person on the corner with the can, when in fact its not. Ninety-three percent of the people that access food through our partner agencies are not homeless people," he said.

District 3 Councilman Pio Renteria said senior citizens and families rely on CAFB and Meals on Wheels.

"A lot of it is affordability. The food stamps don't last long enough, and close to the end of the month they just all run out. And thats a big problem," Renteria said, adding the issue is a major concern for his district, which serves Southwest and East Austin.

In Southwest Austin the CAFB has 12 partner agencies that distribute food.

Southwest Austin resident Betty Lucky volunteers at the Bannockburn Baptist Churchs food distribution center.

"I know there's a need out there," she said.

The center limits food distribution to the 78735, 78736, 78737, 78739, 78745, 78748 and 78749 ZIP codes to make sure there is enough food to go around, she said.

"Usually one person will come in for the family. Sometimes we will have two adults and six or seven children. So we have large families and small families, and we have one person a lot of times," she said.

More than half of the people who get food from CAFB partners have jobs, Perret said.

"They're working two jobs, they're working three jobs, just trying to make ends meet. Some people are missing meals; other people are not sure where their next meal is going to come from, or a parent may feed their child and not feed themselves because they only have so much food," Perret said.

Facing food insecurity in Southwest AustinLocal efforts

When City Council begins budget talks later this year, Garza said groundwork to address food insecurity could take the form of budget requests to determine how much funding is allocated toward food banks and social services that support people in need.

"You have to take a multi-pronged approach [to address food insecurity] you cant just do one thing," she said.

Some projects already in motion will help, Garza said, noting the H-E-B store being planned near the intersection of Slaughter Lane and I-35 will help the Southwestern part of her district access food. In 2014, City Council partnered with Travis County to hire a staff member to assist families with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program enrollment and resources, she said.

In the 78745 ZIP code, which includes Austin City Council districts 2, 3 and 5local group Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin, or GAVA, has worked to improve access to nutritious foods and target childhood obesity, Community Programs Coordinator Alba Sereno said. GAVA Coalition members include Foundation Communities and El Buen Samaritano.

"There is an H-E-B, there is a Sprouts [in 78745]. The question is Can everybody who lives in this ZIP code really get there? And the answer is no. It is difficult for people who don't have transportation, working families who are near to the poverty line to access those big-box places or to access a farmers market," she said. GAVA recently trained residents on how to help bring more healthy options to 78745 corner stores.

Half of the Austin ISD schools in the Southwest Austin area have more than 60 percent of students enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs, according to data obtained through an open records request.

Covington Middle School is among them, with 65 percent enrolled in such programs. For some families, that support is very important, Principal Shannon Sellstrom said. A lack of nutrition can cause students to fall asleep in class or lose focus, she said.

"That's one of the first things that we ask," she said. "Did you eat this morning?"

Sellstrom said charities and church groups have supported students in the past, especially to provide meals during holidays.

Many people have a perception that hunger is something that is happening to someone else, not to a neighbor, Perret said.

"They don't see it," he said. "It's the people cleaning their offices at night. Its the people who are feeding their kids in school. Those people are food insecure."