Beer, Cigarettes, and ... Vegetables?
For many in Austin, food access is far from convenient
Tomgro Grocery, a convenience store in Montopolis, is a staple for the neighborhood. Tomgro and others like it are peppered among the pawn shops, laundromats, empty warehouses, and fast food restaurants that characterize the area. A part of the community for several decades, Tomgro offers more food options than a typical convenience store – but does not have the same quantity and quality of products as a full-service grocery store you'd find in more affluent parts of Austin.
The store is "focused on what the customer wants, on demand. We hunt for what he needs," says store manager Sam Ali.
There are several aisles filled with canned foods, boxed foods, and drinks, but there's only a paltry section of produce. The store has a deli counter, where customers can buy meat products and breakfast tacos. There are also novelty items, like the marijuana-themed hats scattered among T-shirts and bedazzled sunglasses.
The customers know one another and they know Ali, taking jabs at him in Spanish while buying a snack and a case of beer. Ali, originally from Pakistan, has worked in the store for 17 years. He's seen the community evolve, but says it's still the same impoverished black and Latino neighborhood it was in the late Nineties.
Tomgro and other stores like it point to the way Austin has changed – and perhaps left some people behind.
Austin is a city that prides itself on food. With 6,000 restaurants, 1,000 food trailers, a plethora of grocery stores and community farm shares, it would seem that those living in the city have rich opportunities to lead healthy lives. But separate from the farm-to-table fusion restaurants and quaint farmers' markets is a grittier and often neglected side of the city. These low-income and mostly minority communities, where residents do not have easy access to even the most basic sources of nourishment, stand in stark contrast with the city's burgeoning and innovative food scene.
Nearly 20% of Austin residents and about one out of every four children are food insecure, according to the city's 2015 Food Report. "Food insecurity," which is defined as having limited access to adequate food, disproportionately affects children, minorities, and the elderly. One major problem is access to grocery stores and fresh and nutritious foods. In five Austin zip codes, there is not a single full-service grocery store.
Many people in these areas have to make inconvenient trips to attain food in different parts of the city, or else they frequent corner stores which are filled with calorie-dense, unhealthy foods. Although the city is working to address this issue, it's more complex than creating new grocery stores or changing the selection at convenience stores.
Vargas Food Store is a convenience store located a few blocks from Tomgro. "I know everybody in the community. We're all family – I know families' problems. If they have any troubles, they share them with me," Mike Patel, the store manager, says before asking a customer about his grandson. The store is smaller, but mostly similar to Tomgro. And the nutritious, fresh food options are virtually nonexistent.
"This kind of store, they're always selling two things, beer and cigarettes. That's what the people want," Patel says.
But is it?
One recent study examined perceptions around healthy eating and access to fresh, healthy foods in low-income areas. "I think it's a huge misconception that people don't know what is healthy and don't want to eat healthy," says Alexandra Evans, a researcher in the study. Evans, an associate professor at the UT-Houston School of Public Health Austin Regional Campus, studied nearly 150 adults in Austin communities with limited food access, including Montopolis. "We continuously find that people want to eat healthy. And [the issue] is really just access. Not necessarily geographical access, but also affordability, economic access."
It's an issue Austin finally seems to be taking seriously. In September, City Council allocated $400,000 of the FY 2016 budget to increase food access in low-income neighborhoods. Among several pilot programs associated with the funds is the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, a plan to "help local corner stores serve the community better through providing high-quality, fresh fruits and vegetables," according to Edwin Marty, Austin's Food Policy Manager. The plan, which targets two zip codes in Austin, also includes education and incentives to ensure the initiative is well-received by the community, which is the greatest threat to the program's success.
Many participants in Evans' study expressed a strong mistrust of convenience stores. "The thing they feel most strongly about is that all the prices are inflated at corner stores. And so they don't want to support them," Evans says. Because many are reluctant to shop at convenience stores, there is a perceived lack of demand, and corner stores are forced to increase prices, explains Marty. It's a conundrum that the city hopes to address with its initiative.
But leveraging the sheer volume of convenience stores and their intimate access to residents in the community will take more than just restocking shelves with fresh produce. Changing attitudes among both consumers and the stores themselves necessitates a community-wide shift in thinking, say experts.
Marty sees the initiative not as a silver bullet, but as part of a broader continuum to increase access to healthy foods. "It's certainly not going to work at every corner store, but there are opportunities to find the right corner stores in the right communities and layer those with programs through nonprofits that can help address education both from the customer side and the retail side."