Sustainability office leads regional food plan

Tuesday, May 31, 2022 by Willow Higgins

The Austin Office of Sustainability operates in the city First ever food planA coordination structure designed to help bridge disparities in access to local food in a sustainable manner.

While Austin’s food system includes state-of-the-art restaurants and grocery stores across the city, the quality and quantity of food access is divided by race and poverty, explained Edwin Marty, director of food policy at the Office of Sustainability, To the Parks and Recreation Council. Some of the statistics are grim. Nearly 40 percent of Travis County ZIP codes do not have a full-service grocery store, while the city of Austin alone is wasting an estimated 1.24 million pounds of food per day. Farmland in Travis County is also declining at an unprecedented rate—an estimated 16.8 acres of farmland are lost daily, and less than 1 percent of the food consumed in the area is produced locally. When disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic or winter storm Uri strike, inequality in our food system is exacerbated.

“These two catastrophic compounds have shown us, the city of Austin, that we have a lot of planning to do, and a lot of work to do to ensure that we have a resilient and sustainable diet,” Marty said.

“Our goal with an inclusive diet plan is to hear from the community: What do they want to see happen in our diet? What can we do to strengthen our diet? What are some of the things we can do as a city organization and how can we support our community?”

In June of last year, the city council directed an engagement planning and strategy process for the Austin Travis County Food System Plan, a five-year plan developed by experts and stakeholders.

In conjunction with the future plan, the Office of Sustainability will soon publish The State of the City’s Food System 2022 Report, a report that will delve into the data behind trends and challenges in the local food system and include information on past food policy actions.

The plan is in its early stages, and Marty has briefed the Parks Board on the Sustainability Office’s work as a precursor to the project. Currently, the office is working on creating the right team to implement the project, and hiring a consulting team that will help lead the process along with the Sustainability Office. They also form a community advisory committee to provide guidance for the planning process. The group will consist of about 20 to 25 people from “across our wonderful and diverse community…who represent different parts of our diet,” said Marty. Once the advisory panel is approved by the city council and entered this summer, the CAC recruitment process will begin.

“In addition to … the committee, we will also have community advisory groups,” he said. “These will be target problem areas – you can imagine community gardens, school gardens, or urban (forest) gardens.” Participation will come along with financial compensation to ensure that groups include fair representation.

The recruitment and selection process for the committee and advisory groups will begin this fall, and the plan itself is expected to be developed and delivered by mid-2023. In the meantime, the Sustainability Office is focusing on outreach.

“The main thing we want you to know is that we are interested in your comments about who needs to be involved in the planning process,” Marty told the Parks Council. “We can’t develop a good diet plan unless we have the right people involved. So here is my call to action for you – let’s come back soon and let us know who you think needs to be involved with the CAC and focus groups and we will do our best to… create a better Possible diet plan.”

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