Fresh Food Options Are Few And Far For Many In East Austin. City Leaders Want To Change That.

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The City of Austin is helping to get fresh produce and freshly prepared meals into local convenience stores and gas stations in areas where residents are far from a grocery store.

The Healthy Corner Store Program, which was piloted in 2016, relaunched on Wednesday with six stores in the so-called Eastern Crescent. The area is home to many of Travis County’s low-income residents of color, who have been pushed farther east due to Austin’s history of segregation and gentrification. It lacks many of the services available in the city, like health care, major grocery stores and recreational centers.

The City of Austin’s Economic Development Department and Austin Public Health support the $60,000 program. Ashley Bischoff, a program manager at APH in the Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention Division, said the one-year program provides store owners with subsidies, a refrigeration unit, technical help, marketing assistance and vendor connections. In turn, the stores help fill the need for food access in certain areas.

“What we’re trying to do is to make it convenient and affordable for our residents to get a hold of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and freshly prepared grab-and-go type meals,” Bischoff said. “That’s not typically something you would find in a small corner market.”

City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who represents District 2 in Southeast Austin, said she was an advocate for the pilot program when she was working for the American Heart Association. Now as a council member, she said she was happy to see the program entering its second phase.

“That program advances that mission in looking at how can we establish these proximity locations so that individuals who don’t have a grocery store that has fresh and healthy food …can at least go to their corner store and have options there,” Fuentes said.

She is hoping the council will direct money towards food resiliency and equity programs in Thursday’s meeting using funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Fuentes said the COVID-19 pandemic and the winter storm in February have highlighted how fragile the food system is. She supports the creation of an Austin Travis County Food System Plan, a five-year road map that, according to a draft resolution, would aim to address issues like food production, distribution, access and sustainability.

Fuentes also wants to create an emergency food access program. That would include having a plan on how to store and distribute food equitably throughout the city in an emergency.

“We have families who already don’t know where their next meal is going to come from,” Fuentes said. “And when you put a disaster on top of it, it just exacerbates the problem.”

She said creating a more resilient food system will ensure we are better positioned to deal with the next disaster.