AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council approved a $500,000 contract with Go Austin/Vamos Austin Thursday to launch a cooperative, nonprofit-led grocery store in east Austin to help combat healthy food deserts.

The initiative is being funded through federal dollars the city received via the American Rescue Plan Act. The 31-month pilot will “address inequity in the availability of healthy food options in the Eastern Crescent,” according to city documents.

The program is being developed in tandem between GAVA and the city’s Economic Development Department.

“This collaboration with GAVA will focus on organizing and piloting a community-owned grocery store in underserved areas of Austin’s “Eastern Crescent,” said Sylnovia Holt-Rabb, director of the Economic Development Department, in a statement to KXAN. “Through this innovative partnership, the City will explore new tools for promoting greater equity, community empowerment, and food system resilience.”

As part of the pilot, GAVA and city officials will recruit at least 300 residents who are interested in assisting with the cooperative’s founding. GAVA will also be studying the pilot’s success and challenges, in an effort to see if it can be duplicated or expanded down the road.

Nolvia Castillo, an Austin resident and GAVA member, told KXAN this project will have a significant impact on herself and her fellow neighbors in east Austin. Currently, there is an HEB and a Mexican supermarket within 10 minutes’ driving distance — but for residents without cars and dependent on public transit, those miles and minutes add up.

“The impact will be having healthier food,” she said. “[My neighbors] are elated. I don’t know how to express this because it is what they’ve always wanted.”

Reporting conducted by the city found that Austin’s current food insecurity rate — or the percentage of residents unable to reliably access nutritional food — is 16%, two points higher than the national average. Food insecurity can be defined through four types of barriers:

  • Low proximity: People live farther away from healthy food options
  • Lower household income: People don’t have sufficient funds needed to purchase nutritional food
  • Fewer mobility options: People have less reliable access to cars, public transit or other options
  • Less healthy food availability: Areas where the supplies of healthy foods are low

City estimates have found roughly 77,000 Austinites live in areas impacted by all four health barriers, with disproportionate impacts to Austin’s Black population. From a geographic standpoint, city research found there are 77 healthy food stores located west of Interstate 35, compared to 22 stores available east of the highway.

Castillo said there are people in Austin’s eastside without sufficient resources or access to healthy products — particularly produce and organic items — due to food deserts. Particularly for those with health complications like diabetes, ready access to these resources courtesy the upcoming co-op could have significant impact on their health and livelihoods, she said.

“This store will have a grand impact,” she said.

Interview translations provided by KXAN’s Chelsea Moreno.