Volunteers help at the Austin 1114 S. Mason community garden in June 2020 / Photo credit: Nate Tubbs

For generations, residents of Chicago’s Austin community have been challenged to have easy access to what others might consider basic resources. The community has a variety of liquor stores, mini-marts, and gas stations, yet fresh food and healthier options are often difficult to come by. 

In fact, only 55.4% of Austin’s residents have easy access to fruits and vegetables (Source: Austin Forward Together quality-of-life plan).

Austin is often referred to as a ‘food desert,’ a term that does not accurately reflect the heart of the issue. Rather, ‘food apartheid’ is a better fit given the longstanding history of inequality, segregation, systemic barriers, and disinvestment pervading the Austin community. 

So how does this food apartheid impact the lives of Austin residents? 

Before COVID-19, nearly 4 out of 10 households were making stressful tradeoff decisions between food, healthcare, transportation, housing, and education, and now the pandemic has greatly exacerbated these difficulties. In addition, Austin residents spend 85% of their disposable income in Oak Park and other neighboring areas. 

Access to healthy food options should be the right of every single American. Yet unfortunately, this does not hold true for many. To revitalize our community, we must change the system from within. The time is now. Fortunately, the work has already begun.

In response to these prominent challenges, the Austin community came together and established Austin Eats. This holistic approach to the entire food ecosystem brings together organizations already working to promote healthier food choices across Austin and creates 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.

The Austin Eats initiative was born out of the Community Narrative (CN) issue area in the Austin Forward. Together. (AFT) quality-of-life plan, which outlines the community’s goal to revitalize the image and spirit of Austin by creating environments that foster health and wellness and promote healthier food choices. This community-led effort was supported by the collaboration of the Christopher Family Foundation, Lumpkin Family Foundation, The Builder’s Initiative, Food:Land:Opportunity, and the Walter Mander Foundation.

These funders, inspired by AFT and Austin Eats, 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 AFT. They pooled a $1 million pledge in grant funds and awarded resources to several organizations involved in Austin Eats. 

The support received from these organizations has been instrumental in facilitating all that Austin Eats sets out to accomplish. The collaboration is palpable. It’s visible. We know that without it, our desire to sow and grow a healthier community simply could not be sustained. 

Austin Coming Together was awarded $250,000 in 2020 which was disbursed over two years. In the first year, a total of $128,230 was invested to support a plan to respond to increased food insecurity that was exacerbated by the pandemic. These efforts resulted in the Austin Eats Initiative, a collaborative focused on strengthening and sustaining Austin’s food access infrastructure. In 2021, the remaining investment was allocated to the following Austin Eats partners:

At this moment in time, we have a lot of progress to celebrate:

  • 22 community organizations are partnered with Austin Eats to support and lead its implementation throughout the community
  • Frequent fresh food community markets serve 500+ Austin families
  • A robust community calendar houses daily events providing resources for food access
  • A network of 25+ community gardens are working together to activate and connect their spaces
  • 15 gardening days each summer attract a wide variety of volunteers from within and outside the community (visit Facebook.com/AustinGardenCollective for details)
  • A bi-annual film screening series promotes healthy food education 
  • A coordinated food delivery system is being developed to serve Austin’s senior residents

These accomplishments are just the beginning of what our community partners can create to improve food access and equity in Austin. We know that the commitment demonstrated and actions taken thus far cannot be overlooked. They must be recognized. Although the road ahead is long, we are walking in the right direction, together. 

To learn more about the initiative, see the list of partners, get local food resources, or view a food-related event calendar, visit AustinComingTogether.org/AustinEats.