Travis County has 33 food deserts. After 10 years of activism, one might finally get an H-E-B.

Graphic created by Sara Schleede

Once a month, Austin resident Patricia King drives 20 miles from her home to an H-E-B in Bastrop to buy groceries. She spends $200 on canned goods, pasta, grains, meat and cleaning supplies. If she runs out of something before the month is over, she goes to the Dollar General down the street from her home or simply goes without.

“The only thing I buy there in terms of fruit is maybe some apples because I know apples can last,” King said. “And if I run out, I just run out.”

King lives in Del Valle — an unincorporated suburb of Austin and one of Travis County’s 33 food deserts, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income neighborhood where at least 500 people or 33% of its population live far from a grocery store — 1 mile for urban tracts and 10 miles for rural tracts. Del Valle has an 18% poverty rate and a median household income of $51,520.

Del Valle has a few convenience stores with grocery options, as well as a small supermarket, but King says the prices there are sometimes double what she sees at H-E-B. The closest large grocery store is about 11 miles away in Riverside.

H-E-B bought land in an upcoming 350-acre mixed-use development in Del Valle in 2017, meaning a grocery store should be coming to the neighborhood soon.

“We’ve been waiting for years and years and years,” King said. “I mean we first thought of this in 2010, and then it’s going to be 2020, so it’s been 10 years.”

King made a petition advocating for a grocery store in Del Valle. It collected over 1,300 signatures, but she says H-E-B told her the area’s population wasn’t big enough for them to build. Now, King says the process is slow while the developers fulfill contractual obligations, like building roads suited for grocery store traffic.

“What the general grocery industry take on that has been up to this point is that a grocery store will get built when there is kind of sufficient housing density to support it, and when they feel like there are enough customers to make it a viable business venture for them,” said Christopher Schrek, Austin’s former food industry development coordinator.

While neighborhoods like Del Valle wait for large grocery stores to buy-in, the City of Austin has developed smaller programs to offer affordable healthy food options for communities in the meantime.

Farmshare Austin, funded by Austin Public Health, hosts weekly Fresh for Less mobile markets across the city, including Del Valle. The markets set up for two hours once a week at community centers or public schools and sell grocery items like fresh produce, beans, pasta and cooking oil.

“I think by and large everybody understands that having the market near them is just a really wonderful opportunity to be able to eat healthier, high quality food than they might otherwise be able to obtain,” said Heather Helman, Farmshare Austin’s food access director.

Farmshare Austin currently hosts markets in 10 different locations, primarily in northeast, east and southeast Austin. Helman says they will open more locations in the next year.

“(The markets are) more intended to be a short term food access solution … with the hope that eventually real grocery stores and things like that will come in to further meet the needs of the residents,” Helman said.

While the USDA and other institutions commonly use the term “food desert” to refer to areas with low food access, Helman says the phrase has been receiving pushback in recent years.

“The word ‘desert’ kind of conjures up a natural phenomenon, and there’s nothing natural about a food desert,” Helman said. “It’s a social issue. It’s a community planning issue. It’s an urban planning issue.”

Of the 33 food deserts USDA identified in Travis County in 2015, 26 are east of Interstate 35. Helman says Austin’s food access issues stem from redlining — a practice that denies goods and services to certain neighborhoods, usually based on race or class — that occurred in east Austin. She says this forced people to live in less geographically desirable communities with little funding for amenities like grocery stores, and she sees gentrification reinforcing this today.

“You see this extreme widening gap between folks who can afford to live in lovely walkable neighborhoods and folks who maybe have to live in places where they’re going to have to drive to get any of the community assets that other people get to enjoy,” Helman said.

Schrek also blames Austin’s land development patterns, which he calls autocentric. He says people who drive have an easier time getting to grocery stores, while those who cannot drive are left with poorer access to food.

“Our tendency to develop kind of lower density … means we’re more spread out, and so that shapes things too,” Schrek said. “You get people who are geographically farther apart from things, and food is one.”

King says a lot of people have moved out of Del Valle because of the lack of amenities and infrastructure. She chooses to stay, waiting to see if a grocery store someday opens.

“If it comes, it comes, and if it don’t, it don’t,” King said. “The apathy has set in.”

This story was originally written December 2019 for Professor Christian McDonald’s Reporting with Data at the University of Texas at Austin.

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