AUSTIN (KXAN) — As an Austin resident for more than 40 years, Angela Shelf Medearis has seen plenty of changes in the city. Some of the most pronounced are in east Austin, she said, where gentrification has pushed out generations of predominantly Black and Hispanic families in favor of commercial development.

A lifelong education advocate and children’s author, her mission expanded to health education when half of her family was diagnosed with diabetes. Tapping into her family’s own health complications, she developed The Kitchen Diva Health Outreach, a program that provides health resources, workshops and cooking demonstrations to underserved communities.

“I saw a real need to provide a culturally based way of approaching diabetes education,” she said. “And also I saw a need to have a function or a way to gather people together so that they could taste sort of our cultural dishes, but transformed in a healthier way.”

Disparities in food access

The Kitchen Diva Health Outreach is one of 20 Austin-based programs and nonprofits named a recipient of the city’s Food Justice Mini Grant Program. The fund aims to address disparities in food access within the city, with up to $3,000 distributed to programs whose work addresses food deserts and inequity.

The United States Department of Agriculture outlines food insecurity as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” Within Travis County, city officials said there are significant disparities among different racial and ethnic populations.

City data revealed more than 18% of Austin’s population are classified as experiencing food insecurity, or nearly one in every five residents are without consistent, stable access to healthy food. Of Austin-Travis County residents, 11% of Black residents and 9% of Hispanic and Latino residents face food insecurity, compared to 5% of Asian residents and 5% of the region’s white population.

WorkingGroup512, one of the named grant recipients, said the funds will help the organization purchase fresh produce, non-perishable and essential food items, as well as address food needs of youths and single-parent households facing homelessness due to the pandemic.

“We’ll continue accurately assessing harm, loss, and need — to be of service to those who are most-in-need and denied food, housing, and healthcare justice,” founder Chivas Watson said in an email to KXAN. “Food allows us to establish trusting relationships in the hearts of households and communities of Austin, making prayers come true and building capacity by building community.”

“I think the Food Justice Mini Grant Program was really intended to get to the core of one substantial challenge that all governments have: How do we understand where the challenges are in a community, and address those challenges in a way that’s appropriate from the perspective of the people with lived experience?”

edwin marty, food policy manager, city of austin

Edwin Marty serves as food policy manager for Austin’s Office of Sustainability. He said for him, the importance of this program is collaborating with nonprofits that have the experience of addressing food insecurities within their communities, providing them with the resources to help expand those initiatives.

“If I’m not living in a particular community, if I didn’t grow up in that community, if I don’t speak the language — literally and figuratively — of that community, it’s gonna be really hard for me, especially a white man, to comprehend the subtle differences between a program that delivers a certain kind of service and then a program that delivers a tailored service that is from a community and for that community,” he said.

Reimagining accessibility

Austin's Office of Sustainability outlined four key components that help define food security:

  • Availability of healthy food
  • Affordability of fresh produce
  • Awareness of food assistance programs
  • Mobility options

The latter is a core focus of Drive A Senior ATX, a nonprofit centered around free transportation services for Austin's homebound senior population. Executive Director Stephanie Lane said the nonprofit has more than 450 clients, with 80 of them receiving at-home food pantry delivery services through partnerships with Hope Food Pantry Austin and Micah 6 of Austin.

"We want older adults who literally built this town, to be able to finish the last piece of their journey with dignity and feeling like they have a choice in what they eat, because they lose almost all of their choices in their own care," she said.

Gabe Breternitz is a born and raised Austinite. When he launched Good Apple in October 2019, his premise was creating a business model that promoted healthy food access across geographic and racial barriers that traditionally led to food deserts.

When the pandemic hit in March and unemployment levels skyrocketed, he said food insecurity became all the more prevalent of an issue that stripped Austin's most vulnerable populations of food access.

"Ultimately, the idea at the time was with the 'Stay Home, Stay Healthy' program, we wanted to create a food assistance program that's targeted towards the people that are falling into food insecurity now, because of the pandemic, and were also at high risk of hospitalization due to exposure from the virus," he said. "So that's why we targeted towards immunocompromised or high-risk individuals, which a lot of them were elderly people early on."

Since March 2020, Good Apple has made more than 30,000 food deliveries through its "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" initiative as a means of enhancing citywide nutritional resources.

Breternitz said the main focus of the business has shifted back to its original, prescriptive approach. Through this, he said they've collaborated with area health clinics on nutritional guidance and resource access to help prevent vulnerable populations from developing diseases or health complications due to poor nutrition.

Amid Austin's growth, Breternitz said his perspective on the city has changed due to his time running deliveries and seeing the discrepancies between different neighborhoods. His hope is that, through Good Apple's and other recipients' increased funding, they can help support all communities, one nutritious meal at a time.

"We're all neighbors. I want to eat the same food that you're eating, and I want you to have the same access that I have as well," he said. "So that's like, kind of the whole goal with Good Apple: It's making it equal for everybody."