For generations, residents of Chicago’s Austin community have been challenged to find what others might consider basic resources. The neighborhood has plenty of liquor stores, mini-marts, and gas stations, but fresh food is hard to come by.
Austin is often referred to as a ‘food desert,’ but that term does not accurately describe the decades of systemic racism, neglect, and misinvestment that have created these conditions.
“When you think of a desert, it’s a naturally occurring environment, so calling neighborhoods food deserts when they don’t have healthy food options is basically saying ‘this just happens in some places,’” said Liz Abunaw, owner of Forty Acres Fresh Market.
Therefore, ‘food apartheid’ is a better fit. “What we see today is inequality and segregation. What we have to do is break down these barriers, and that’s why we are facing food apartheid in the Austin community,” said Abunaw.
Access to healthy food options should be the right of every single American; unfortunately, it has become more of a privilege. This is evidenced by the fact that nearly 4 out of 10 households were making stressful tradeoff decisions between food, healthcare, transportation, housing, and education before COVID-19, and now the pandemic has greatly exacerbated these difficulties.
Due to a lack of mobility or transportation options, many Austin residents who need the emergency food services of pantries and soup kitchens can’t access them.
As part of the city’s Racial Equity Rapid Response Team (RERRT), Austin Coming Together (ACT) led weekly food distributions in the summer and fall of 2020. Even with nine other Austin based food pantries, the effort still served 750-1,000 families every week. ACT responded by convening the community around this growing issue. Through that convening, the depth of the problem became even more clear.
“At its core, Austin Eats addresses the inequalities in food access that drive the inequalities of health and economic outcomes for Austin,” says Abunaw. “When you have an inequitable food system, and the choice to be healthy in your diet is not readily available, that extends to unequal access for people’s health, jobs, income, and neighborhood built environment.”
The result of lack of food resources? Austin residents spend 85% of their disposable income in Oak Park and other neighboring areas. This trend must change if we are to revitalize the community. The time is now, and the work has already begun.
A diverse group of stakeholders have come together with an holistic approach to address the entire food ecosystem with the goal of achieving long-term sustainable change.
This effort, called Austin Eats, will synergize the organizations already working to promote healthier food choices across Austin and create an infrastructure geared toward food access. To accomplish this, Austin’s entire food continuum needs to be considered, from community gardens, food pantries, and grocery stores, to food cooperatives, culinary entrepreneurs and restaurants.
Austin Eats is “a collaborative action that brings the ideas of individual organizations, residents, and faith-based leaders together to scale a more cohesive, robust and strong food system that covers the needs of everything in Austin. We came to the understanding that alone, we will not solve the problem,” says Abunaw.
Ways to address these problems are outlined in the Austin Forward. Together. plan, a set of goals created by and for the community designed to utilize 23 strategies with 84 total actions to improve seven issue areas by the year 2023: Community Narrative, Education, Housing, Youth Empowerment, Economic Development, Public Safety, and Civic Engagement.
The Austin Eats initiative was born out of the Community Narrative (CN) issue area in Austin Forward. Together., which describes the community’s desire to revitalize the image and spirit of Austin by creating environments that foster health and wellness and promote healthier food choices across Austin. This community led effort was made possible through the collaboration of the Christopher Family Foundation, Lumpkin Family Foundation and The Builder’s Initiative.
These funders came together to form the Austin Fresh Fund in an effort to explore what it would mean to support greater access to healthy food in the Austin community on Chicago’s West Side—a key strategy of Austin’s Quality of Life Plan. They pooled a pledged $1 million in grant funds and have awarded resources to several of the organizations involved in the Austin Eats Initiative.
While the Austin Eats plan spans a five year timeline, organizers are concentrating the first year’s efforts on uniting the various groups already touching parts of this work; crafting a cohesive plan that will stand the test of time; and implementing strategies for successful execution.
The Austin community is slowly moving towards a more equitable food ecosystem with a future grocery store and food co-op at different stages of development.
Austin’s food co-op educates residents on the significance of integrating healthy food choices in a daily diet. They will teach food literacy, mental and physical wellness, as well as cultural empowerment.
Furthermore, Austin Eats will support a pilot program for culinary entrepreneurs that provides 250 meals per month to Austin families.
To date, twenty two organizations are now working together to support and lead the implementation of the Austin Eats initiative.
“Food apartheid” describes Austin’s lack of food access caused by years of systemic issues.
55.4% of Austin’s residents report having easy access to fruits and vegetables. Source: chicagohealthatlas.org
Austin Eats outlines plans to change the food landscape and rewrite the narrative around food in Austin by focusing on:
- Grocery Access & Culinary Entrepreneurship: Last year’s Farmers Market as managed by Forty Acres through the city’s Dept. of Cultural Affairs & Special Events was a valuable resource for residents. Over the next two years, Austin Eats aims to increase the number of market customers from 50 to as many as 150, and to double the number of vendors.
- Gardens & Farms: A new community garden will be built in northeast Austin, while efforts to support a year-round hydroponic farm and 20+ existing community gardens is also a focus.
- Marketing: Increasing awareness of Austin Eats and the work it involves will be a challenge, but it is essential in helping this initiative succeed.
- Emergency Food Access: By convening and collaborating with the many food pantries, soup kitchens, and pop-up food distributions that operate in Austin, this initiative aims to distribute 200 more boxes of healthy food to families each month through a more established delivery system.
- Food Education: Austin Eats will host a series of film screening events focused on healthy food. They will include discussions and cooking demonstrations, and hope to attract 200 attendees per event.
Marketing & Development Manager,
Austin Coming Together