Food deserts in the rain

A beautiful desert scene

Deserts can be beautiful to see — flowing sand blown by the wind into ocean-like waves. The smell of the sand is unique in a desert. Desert scenes in movies are always slow pans across the sand as far as the eye can see.

In reality, deserts are painful, highlighted by unrelenting scorching heat, until nighttime, when temperatures drop precipitously. Water in the desert is at a premium, only in oases, which are few and far between.

Food deserts are similar to true deserts. Unrelenting hunger, featuring children getting their daily nutritional needs met at school. It’s common in a food desert to find no grocery stores close by or those that are in the community have poorly stocked shelves.

Food Deserts are Real

What do you see when you picture a food desert? Children in African villages, sitting on their moms’ laps, crying from hunger? Yes, that’s starvation. But food deserts exist across this country. As a matter of fact, food deserts exist in the fastest-growing city in the country — Austin, Texas.

A food desert is classified by the United States Department of Agriculture as an area where at least 33% of the population in the area live more than half a mile from a grocery store.

According to The Civics Lab’s 2021 report presented to Austin City Council, there are 33 food deserts in the Austin Metro area, most east of I-35.

When I was a food blogger, we (the Austin Food Bloggers Alliance) worked with the Capital Area Food Bank, now the Central Texas Food Bank (CTFB). We saw first-hand the issues they were trying to address, food deserts being one of them. We learned how large numbers of children go home after school and have to fend for themselves because they don’t see their parents until the next morning; those parents work several jobs to just live in the Austin area. We also learned how a smaller but appallingly-large number of children only get their food requirements met at school, with breakfast and lunch.

The national average of food insecurity in a geographic area is 10.9%; in Austin, that number is 14.7%. That means almost 15% of the Austin population doesn’t know if and when they’ll have enough healthy food for the day.

The USDA says Texas is one of the most food-insecure states in the country, and Austin is at the top of that list.

Rain In The Desert?

Just like rain in the desert does little lasting good, two new initiatives have been put forth by the Austin City Council to tackle the issue. The first is to name April 21 as Austin Food Insecurity Awareness Day. The second is to add new stops along public transport where healthy food is available.

Having a “day” to bring awareness is great for that day, and it helps those who have food readily available feel better. When the day is over, though, it gets forgotten and everyone moves on to more cheerful days, like Memorial Day and 4th of July, where food is central to the celebrations.

It’s great that the City Council would like to add new public transportation stops at grocery stores with healthy food options. It’s a wonderful idea but imminently impractical. “Healthy” food options are often more expensive and cannot be prepared by children at home by themselves. Prepackaged and fast food are the best options many of these families have because they’re inexpensive, and a child can fix them easily without knives and stovetops.

How Can I Help?

The Food Bloggers Alliance has worked in the past with the Central Texas Food Bank (CTFB) to develop low-cost, healthy recipes that a child could make without a knife or stovetop.

But what can the average person do to help? The first place to start is by making a contribution to the CTFB. While companies like HEB contribute heavily to the CTFB, every dime contributed by the community is used to support those living in food deserts and in situations where daily food is not a guarantee.

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that the world can change in a heartbeat. There are many who are newly reliant on the CTFB after losing jobs and better living conditions due to the pandemic. Think “There but the grace of God go I” next time you’re in the grocery store, spending hundreds on what’s in your shopping cart, and send a percentage of your grocery budget to the Central Texas Food Bank.

Thanks to KVUE for their wonderful story on the Austin City Council’s initiatives.

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Laurie Leiker

Laurie Leiker

I’m Managing Partner @ Search & Convert, as well an author, writer, editor, consumer advocate, & tech early adopter, with a decade spent as a radio/TV producer.