1 in 4 Austin households is food insecure, not just because of money

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hundreds of volunteers from Austin’s tech industry are calling attention to food insecurity in the city by donating their time to food-based nonprofits this week.

The Entrepreneurs Foundation, the charitable arm of the tech hub Capital Factory, organized the service days for 11 of the city’s biggest tech companies, and 415 people are volunteering through Friday. 

“It’s not all about what’s going on downtown,” said Caitlyn Conner, one of the Food for Thought service week organizers at the Entrepreneurs Foundation.

Despite Austin’s reputation as a foodie-friendly city, she said, the inequality of access to nutritious meals on a regular basis is greater than many people think. 

A study published in 2016 found that one in four households in Austin are considered food insecure, meaning families have trouble keeping nutritious food on the table. When Dr. Raj Patel ran those numbers by other food experts, they told him it sounded about right.

“That’s the tragedy!” said Patel, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. “That we can live in a city with this kind of food culture and experts will nod their heads and say, ‘Yeah, 25 percent, that’s about par for the course.'”

The volunteers hope they can help make a small dent in the inequality this week. Monday, a group of 16 people from the cybersecurity company SailPoint packed up and delivered hot lunches through Meals on Wheels in east Austin. 

As software makers, they often live in a digital world, vice president of product management and Meals on Wheels volunteer Rick Weinberg said.

“To be able to have the tangible effort and feeling of giving back, it makes you feel good,” he said, walking down the covered walkway of an income-regulated apartment complex in east Austin to deliver a meal.

The recipient, Charles Childers, 96, is a World War II veteran who used to paint and teach, and who still writes. “The people that deliver are very important to me,” he said.

Childers illustrates the difficulty of eradicating food insecurity, because for him, like a lot of families who find themselves in that category, it’s not just an issue of food costs.

“I don’t drive a car anymore,” said Childers, who walks with a crutch. “So I don’t really go shopping that much.” A neighbor will take him to the store from time to time, but he still relies on Meals on Wheels to deliver every weekday.

Transportation plays a big role in food insecurity, Patel said. If a family doesn’t have a car, lacks easy access to a bus route, doesn’t have good sidewalks in their neighborhood, or has health issues that prevent them from walking to a grocery store, that family doesn’t have adequate access to food.

The solutions to those problems, Patel said, have to be just as robust as the problem itself: “Raising wages, making wages livable, making rents affordable, improving transportation, improving healthcare infrastructure and improving school meal programs.”

In order to get there, he said, the city, including leadership and everyone who lives here has to commit to making Austin a city that values equality of access to high-quality food.

Organizers know Food for Thought Week won’t solve the problem. But they hope some of the people in the city’s tech space who can come up with new ideas to help fix food insecurity are among the hundreds of volunteers donating their time.

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