Views expressed in this blog are mine alone and are not intended to represent Williamson County policy nor intended as legal advice.
A food desert is defined as an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. "Many poor people live in food deserts—where they have plenty of food but none of it healthy". Where are the food deserts in our county, specifically in Precinct 4, and what can we do about them?
The 2019 Williamson County Health Assessment discusses this issue and more. (You can find full details at www.healthywilliamsoncounty.org.) Looking at the city health profiles for Taylor, Bartlett and Granger is very revealing.
The percentage of people who live in Taylor and do not have easy access to a grocery store and those in a Health Equity Zone is startling. (Health Equity Zones are areas in the county that tend to have higher than average health risks and burdens.) 61% of Taylor lives outside of easy access to a grocery store. In Taylor, this equates to a 5-year difference in life expectancy between neighborhoods.
Both Bartlett and Granger in their entirety are in a health equity zone. 25% of Bartlett and Granger residents lack easy access to a grocery store. They also have 25% and 46% of their children, respectively, living in poverty. 1 in 5 Taylor children live in poverty.
Overall in Wilco, just 8% of the population lives in a health equity zone and 8% of Wilco children overall live below the poverty line.
The disparity is real.
Now that we know about the problem, the question is what do we do about it? Finding monies to bring supermarkets to areas without them is a barrier. One solution to this is the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI). This program provides financial and technical assistance to healthy food retails projects. Major portions of Taylor, and all of Bartlett and Granger are in areas the Reinvestment Fund, who manages the Initiative, considers low income and low access. If the retailers agree to accept SNAP benefits, any for profit retailer such as HEB or nonprofit or co-op would meet the eligibility requirements for financial and technical aid.
Grocery stores are a for profit business running on slim margins. They can be reluctant to build in lower income areas for fear of not being profitable. It can also take a while for a new grocery store in a food desert to make a profit since changing people’s behavior is not an overnight project. This is where investment from funds like the HFFI come into play.
Community gardens and limited day markets are some other ideas to combat low access. Community gardens provide free fresh vegetables to a neighborhood but require land and community effort. Limited or mobile markets can bring fresh food in to neighborhoods on a regular schedule. Cities can also create ordinances that provide free technical assistance to corner stores to increase their fresh food capacity.
A lack of public transportation creates further barriers to access. Taylor, Bartlett and Granger have no public transportation. Indeed, in Precinct 4 the only community with public transportation is Round Rock. This service is still in its first year and is slowly expanding routes to reach more of the city and connect with Austin. There is no regular public transportation service between cities in our precinct except CARTS, which has a limited schedule. We desperately need public transportation in our county. This would not only assist people in accessing fresh food but health care as well. That bus service in Round Rock? It has stops is at Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, St David’s Hospital and ACC. If we had connector routes, our community would be able to access their services on a much larger scale. There are existing rail lines connecting Round Rock to Taylor and Taylor to Granger/Bartlett. We need a Metro Rail service connecting our cities.
To combat the problem of food deserts takes community effort. We need to be involved with our city and county governments to make our voices heard regarding accessibility to fresh food, healthcare and transportation. We need to encourage our state leaders to bring state monies to bear on the problem as well. Ultimately, this issue effects all of us. It effects the health and viability of our communities. We must work together to make change.
In my court, I see the effects of food deserts primarily in juvenile court. So many of the families that come into our court need help with health and mental health care but the resources in Precinct 4 are thin on the ground. When families can‘t access the care and fresh food their kids need, I see those kids in truancy and misdemeanor cases. Parents who have transportation issues have a hard time getting their kids to school, to doctor’s appointments and even to a job. I’m not advocating for public transportation in the hopes that the county can derive an income from bus and train fares. I advocate for public transportation because it is a public health and community wellness issue. It’s an environmental issue. It a human rights issue as important as access to physical and mental healthcare and quality, fresh food. When we support those in need, everyone benefits.