In a town that’s getting increasingly expensive, more and more Austinites have to make a grim choice: pay rent or feed their family. The result at the end of 2015 was that the number of hungry people in Austin was one in four. This epic level of food insecurity is both tragic and predictable. It is also far worse than anyone thought.
Worse, because prior to the study we released this week, the most recent estimate was 17 percent. Our study finds food insecurity to be affecting 25 percent of the population. Tragic, because Austin’s foodie narrative – a national gastronomic capital – orbits around the very thing that a quarter of its residents can’t get. And predictable because the United States in general — and Texas in particular — has consistently ignored its hungry residents.
Consider the data from north-central Austin, where we focused our research. In Austin ISD schools, the average rate of children participating in free or reduced lunches was 94.6 percent. To qualify, a family of four needs to earn less than $44,863 to get reduced lunches and $31,525 to get free meals. With rents at record highs — and with poverty rates rising in which people of color were far more likely to be in poverty than whites — we found food insecurity rates in north-central Austin considerably higher than 25 percent.
Many of those respondents live in so-called food deserts, or areas of poverty that are more than a mile from a large grocery store. One policy response has been to argue for more big retailers to open in low income ZIP codes. We’ve written before about why this might not be able to fix the problem. In north-central Austin, many areas are within the orbit of a supermarket, but they’re not able to get there because of poor transit options and no sidewalks.
The real challenge in the food desert equation isn’t the lack of stores so much as the lack of income. We know this because over the past year, graduate students at University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs have worked on food-related issues for the city’s Office of Sustainability, culminating in the “Food for All” report. Not only did our team survey food insecurity using data from the Central Texas Sustainability Indicators Project, we also talked to north-central Austin residents to ask what they wanted. Their answers might surprise you.
In general, people didn’t want more community gardens. Poverty is about income — but also about time. After working and commuting far more than 40 hours a week and caring for family, few of us can squeeze in the time to tend crops that provides food after a couple of months. Refugee communities were far more interested in community gardens because it gives them a place to meet, learn and grow crops from their homelands that can’t be easily found here. But this is what community gardens are best at: building community, not feeding the poor.
Instead, our respondents wanted more practical solutions, like making it easy to participate in SNAP, the program that helps people buy food. Reducing the barriers of language, information and access to enroll in SNAP are things that our study respondents wanted. In 2013, only 68 percent of the eligible working poor in Texas participated in SNAP, which is lower than the US rate of 74 percent. (Texas ranked 44 out of 50 states.) In Travis County, enrollment is far lower: 57 percent. This leaves $169 million per year unclaimed from the federal government, according to data from the Austin Travis County Food Policy Board. Leaving SNAP dollars on the table is a problem for which everyone in the city pays, not least because every $5 spent on SNAP generates $9 in economic activity and multiplier effects.
Improving SNAP enrollment rates is still not enough. Support levels from SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, are woefully inadequate. They’re meant to last a month, and 80 percent of families run out within the first two weeks. Raising SNAP rates would also help low-income families eat more healthily, but it’s no good having higher SNAP benefits if you can’t spend them.
During focus groups with a range of north-central residents, our research team of gradaute students heard many suggestions to improve access to healthy foods, including better transport to grocery stores, more information about food, well-maintained public spaces, more affordable housing, and better living wages.
Perhaps most important of all, our respondents were eager to be included in discussions about solutions to their problems. Asking people with food insecurity about their ideas to combat poverty is a surprisingly novel idea. Cities are only starting to realize that serving their constituents requires listening to them. It might not be surprising that everyone needs more time and money to survive in Austin. But, we — by hearing what Austin’s food insecure residents have been saying for decades — also learned transportation is a food issue. Affordable housing is a food issue. Dignity is a food issue.
It’s alimentary, my dear Austin.
Lentz and Patel are assistant and research professors at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.