It’s no secret that Austin is among cities with the lowest unemployment and crime rates nationally. But Austin also stands out as the most economically segregated major metro area in the country, where minorities, especially Latinos, lack access to affordable housing and healthy food.
Latinos in Austin are more likely than other residents to live with food insecurity — that is, live in places where consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources — and the districts where they live have the fewest number of supermarkets per capita.
As the city center has become more expensive, thousands of Latino families, most of them low-income, have moved to the outskirts of the city, areas considered food deserts because they lack access to nutritious food. Rosa Flores, who lives in unincorporated eastern Travis County, is among those who must travel many miles to the nearest full-service grocery store if they want to buy fresh food at a lower price.
“It’s a great deal of trouble just to feed a family,” Flores said.
In Travis County alone, at least the 17 percent of residents live with food insecurity, according to a recent report published by the Community Advancement Network. The network doesn’t give an ethnic breakdown, but nationwide 22 percent of Latinos live in food insecurity, second only African-Americans, of whom 26 percent live with food insecurity. The rate among Anglos is 10.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some of that is because minorities in the Austin area are more likely to be poor, according to the CAN report. In 2014, Hispanics in Travis County had a poverty rate of 27 percent, almost three times that of Anglo residents. The African-American poverty rate was 22 percent.
“The city and the county haven’t worked hard enough to make sure that healthy food is accessible in low income and poverty areas in Austin, and especially in East Austin,” said Susana Almanza, director of People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources, or PODER, an organization that advocates for an end to inequality and for the environment.
Latinos in Austin are more likely to live in areas where there are few full-service grocery stores per capita. Travis County has 85 full-service stores — which sell fresh produce, meat and dairy, as well as unprocessed dried grains and beans — and 62 are within the city of Austin.
While each of the 10 Austin council districts has a population of about 80,000, the majority of full-service groceries are in districts where most of the residents are white and wealthy.
District 2, where 69 percent of the 80,004 residents are Hispanic, has only two grocery stores. By contrast, there are nine such stores in District 10, where 9.3 percent of the 80,839 residents are Hispanic and 78.3 percent are Anglo. The difference in median household income is about $90,000 between districts, according to City Data.
The trend is consistent among all districts: Those with more low-income and Latino families have fewer full-service grocery stores.
Almanza said Austin has a long history of inequality and segregation that continues to affected minority communities in Austin.
Many businesses are not interested on “making sure that all people get quality of food and have access to quality of food,” Almanza said. “People are looking for maximum profit.”
But Edwin Marty, the city of Austin’s food policy manager, has a different perspective when it comes to local food deserts. “We live in a capitalistic society, for the most part,” he said. “A business, such as a grocery store, decides where it can be successful based on perceived demand and supply.”
The city can offer incentives to lure businesses, through low‐interest loans, grants or property‐tax reductions, Marty said, but where grocery stores are concerned, “none of this is actually happening. But we are exploring options.”
Meanwhile, the city is trying to ease the problem by working with groups such as the Central Texas Food Bank and promoting garden cultivation through the Austin school district, among other initiatives, Marty said.
Almanza said more should be done. “The city goes around recruiting all kind of high-tech companies and new companies, they should also be recruiting grocery stores into those communities.”
Read a Spanish translation of this story in our free Spanish-language weekly edition, ¡Ahora Sí!, and online at statesman.com/ahorasi.