Grocery chain H-E-B has the land it needs to build a supermarket near the Austin airport in Del Valle, but it could take a few years before there’s enough people living in the area to support building the store, a company executive said Saturday.
For residents living near the site — a 17.2-acre tract at the southeast corner of FM 973 and Texas 71 — that means another few years of living in what is known as a food desert, where getting to the nearest grocery store involves a 10- to 15-mile trip.
But in the meantime, officials announced Saturday several alternative ways to bring food to the area through public-private partnerships.
H-E-B will partner with Austin nonprofit Farmshare to set up a mobile market where organic, affordable produce will be sold out of a food truck at a location to be determined, Leslie Sweet, H-E-B director of public affairs in Central Texas, told a press conference Saturday. Farmshare hosts these markets weekly at several locations already.
The two also will work to increase food production in Del Valle by growing crops on a portion of the H-E-B site.
In partnership with the Central Texas Food Bank, H-E-B will also fund a mobile food pantry serving students at a Del Valle school to be determined. The program includes not only food distribution but also nutrition education in multiple languages.
“Del Valle, we’re committed to you, we’re committed to you not just in the long term when we can build an H-E-B site, but we’re committed to you today to get out here and continue the fight to get healthy food access to your families,” Sweet said.
Jeff Thomas, H-E-B senior vice president and general manager, said the company often buys land a few years in advance of building as it waits for the market to catch up.
“We’ll continue to monitor the growth of the area, and as soon as the time is right, believe me, I’ll be the first one to push the buttons to help get it going here,” Thomas said.
The projects announced Saturday come as a result of the Spirit of East Austin initiative launched in 2015 with the goal of receiving public input on how to create transformative development in the area.
The city also announced Saturday a new website for the initiative at spiritofeastaustin.org where officials plan to give updates and collect input through surveys.
For some, like Roy Woody, 36, Travis County Democratic Party chair of Precinct 407, the new H-E-B can’t come soon enough. Woody helped collect more than 1,000 signatures on a petition to bring a grocery store to Del Valle a few years ago and said he felt encouraged by Saturday’s news.
“My hope is that this will kick off to bigger and better things for the area, not just a grocery store but community centers, more jobs,” Woody said.
Ron Wattinger, 51, a longtime Del Valle resident and former Del Valle school trustee, said he also felt encouraged by the news, but said he worries that the lack of infrastructure in the area will deter H-E-B from starting to build any time soon. For one thing, the state needs to finish the work on Texas 71, he said.
“As much as we all want this here, what we’ve been saying through the school district for years is that we have to have the infrastructure to support it,” Wattinger said. “Until we get the infrastructure, great partners like H-E-B can’t do what they need to do.”