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Our neighborhood health story: This nonprofit is changing the way south Austin eats

Bonnie Vengrow By Bonnie Vengrow

Your community shapes how long and how well you live. The Aetna Foundation recently teamed up with U.S. News & World Report to rank counties across the U.S. on factors like education, nutrition, public safety and more. Out of nearly 3,000 counties assessed, we identified the 500 healthiest communities in America . At #311, Travis County, TX, made the honor roll, but even the healthiest communities have room for improvement. In this series, we take a look at counties on the list where residents have identified a health challenge and are working to solve it with the help of a grant from the Aetna Foundation. Here, we profile two south Austin communities in Travis County that have come together to bring affordable, healthy food to residents.

Woman talking to a man in parking lot

A longtime Austin resident, Frances first teamed up with GAVA in 2013.

Frances A.’s passion for healthy eating began early. Growing up, she and her family of ten were very poor, and meals were whatever they could grow themselves: corn, cactus, beans and mango. When she moved to the United States and began raising three boys of her own, she discovered it wasn’t so easy to eat the same way. The nearest grocery store was a ten-minute car ride from her home in southeast Austin, TX. And the produce there was expensive – more of a splurge than a staple. Out of convenience, Frances ended up doing much of her shopping at a local corner store. Faced with shelves full of chips, candy and boxed pastas, she found it difficult to make healthy choices. 

Frances’ situation is hardly unique. Many people in this low-income pocket of town want to eat better but lack all-important access to affordable, healthy options. Even worse, city officials estimate that south and southeast Austin have some of the area’s highest rates of food insecurity, meaning residents don’t know where their next meal is coming from. This, in turn, has contributed to higher-than-average rates of diabetes and obesity among adults and children here.

Like many of her neighbors, Frances found the hurdles to healthy eating too much to overcome – until 2013, when she and other residents teamed up with GO! Austin/¡VAMOS! Austin (GAVA), a local nonprofit focused on helping people become more active and eat better. Together, they took on an ambitious goal: to reshape the way their entire community eats.

Female volunteer at GAVA

To date, GAVA has helped form nearly 40 resident-led teams that focus on improving the community.

Harnessing the power of community

Where we live, work and play can serve a powerful role in shaping our health. It can even impact our life expectancy by as much as 60%. GAVA understands this. Since its inception in 2012, the nonprofit has improved access to healthy food, physical activity, school health, and early childhood and community safety in south and southeast Austin.

Their work here goes beyond telling people to eat better or exercise, says Carmen Llanes Pulido, GAVA executive director. “We look into the neighborhoods where we find the highest rates of childhood obesity and talk to people about what gets in the way of living a healthy lifestyle,” she says.

Frances’ first experience working with GAVA was prompted by a rash of break-ins in her area. Eager to reduce crime, she turned to the group a few years ago to help her start a neighborhood watch program. GAVA organizers and neighbors helped her knock on doors, distribute flyers and connect with local police. Once the program began, residents noticed a difference in their quality of life. “Crime decreased a lot here, and it’s a lot safer,” says Frances, who joined the GAVA staff in 2017 as a paid community organizer.

For residents like Frances, such statistics are hardly a surprise. As a parent and longtime resident of the area, she knew how desperately she and her neighbors needed access to nutritious, affordable food options. One half of the area is a food desert, meaning at least one-third of residents live more than a mile away from a large grocery store. The other half is a food swamp, or saturated with fast-food places and convenience stores. There are seven grocery stores along the perimeter of the region. But, as Carmen points out, “if you’re in the middle and you don’t have access to a car – as many people here don’t – then it’s very difficult to get to those healthy food sources.”

Whether it’s improving public safety or sprucing up abandoned parks and playgrounds, initiatives are entirely resident-led. GAVA’s role is to support resident leaders like Frances as they organize neighbors, leverage area resources and navigate government red tape. The nonprofit received a boost recently with a $100,000 Cultivating Healthy Communities grant from the Aetna Foundation.

"We have learned so much from our partnership with GAVA, "says Amy Aparicio Clark, managing director of community impact and strategy at the Aetna Foundation. "They put residents on the front lines of community transformation, which makes their grant impactful. As a result of our work with GAVA, resident leadership has become a top priority for our community grant program."

Travis County map

GAVA’s efforts couldn’t come at a better time. Right now, more than 50% of parents and children in south and southeast Austin are considered obese, and diabetes is common, according to a five-year study of the area conducted by the Michael & Susan Dell Center For Healthy Living at the University of Texas School of Public Health. In contrast, the rest of Travis County enjoys better-than-average rates of diabetes and obesity. An estimated 7.3% of adults in the county have diabetes (better than the national average of 9.3%), and 20.5% are considered obese (national average is 31%), according to data compiled as part of the Healthiest Communities rankings. These rankings were developed as a result of a collaboration between the Aetna Foundation and U.S. News and World Report.

And so new initiatives were born, including installing farm stands in the community and stocking corner stores with nutritious food.

Bringing food from the farm to the table

The weekly Fresh For Less farm stand, located in a community center, is the size of a cafeteria table and fits neatly into the entrance of the building. As families who live in the surrounding apartment complex stream in and out, they’re greeted by heaping baskets of a late-spring bounty. Each week, a dozen or so customers line up to buy fresh produce from Lilia O., who lives in the complex and runs the small stand.

Woman looking at fresh vegetables on a table

Lilia sets up the Fresh For Less farm stand. She serves a dozen or so customers each week.

“Sales are on the rise here and at the other three farm stands in the area,” says Simone Benz, food access projects manager for the Sustainable Food Center (SFC). SFC partners with GAVA to help community leaders like Lilia bring healthy, local food to the area. It also works with network of farmers to supply produce to the stands.

The amount of money people spend per purchase is increasing, which suggests a growing level of trust, interest and engagement. Plus, stands are conveniently located in areas where residents would already be: an apartment complex lobby, a school parking lot, a recreation center.

Because Austin is changing so rapidly, it’s important to support a strong local food system that’s accessible and equitable for everyone, Simone says. “Food access is really about meeting people where they are.”

The Healthy Corner Store initiative follows a similar premise: put nutritious, budget-friendly options where people already are. Frances supported it by meeting individually with store owners and encouraging them to carry healthy items. Sue R., another resident leader, worked with neighbors and owners to select the food, determine reasonable price points and plan community events to drum up interest.

Though investing in the new inventory was risky and might require store owners to take a loss at first, Frances assured them that their investment would pay off. If you stock it, she said, residents will buy it.

Her prediction was spot on: The five-year study of the area found that the percentage of people who bought fruits and vegetables from corner stores increased from 24% in 2013 to 35% in 2017. Residents were also eating a greater variety of vegetables – and more than one cup of them daily to boot. “We talked to the owner of the corner store and the manager, who said parents come in with their kids after school and buy them healthy snacks,” Sue says. “There’s good turnover on the shelves. It’s really been a good experience.”

“One of the biggest things I hear from people at the farm stands is, ‘This food tastes way better than what I can get at the grocery store.’”

Such developments may bode well for the future of the area. “The demand for healthy food, we know, is going up in most places,” Carmen says. “But if we can increase that access and make it routine, I think the culture shift will follow. We're probably going to see some of those outcomes 5, 10, 15 years later, especially as the kids are growing older.”

Spreading compassion

Though they’re still relatively new, the corner store and farm stand initiatives are already having an effect on the community. There’s the joy in finding new foods – and rediscovering favorites from childhood. “The biggest things I hear from people at the farm stands are, ‘This food tastes way better than what I can get at the grocery store.’ ‘My kids are eating vegetables when before they refused to,’” Simone says. “My hairs on my arms are standing up just talking about it!”

Woman and children at local farmers market

Thanks to farm stands and the Healthy Corner Store initiative, residents are now eating a greater variety of vegetables.

There’s also the pride that comes with knowing you’re helping people nourish themselves. Lilia says selling produce to her neighbors – and helping them eat healthier – is major source of satisfaction. Frances, meanwhile, enjoys buying food from the farm stand and giving it to those without. After all, she remembers vividly what it’s like to be in need.

Several years ago, her middle son was diagnosed with cancer. During the two years of treatment and recovery, the family ate whatever they could afford – most often, inexpensive packets of instant soup. “Going through that struggle impacted me. I’m more empathetic,” she says. “But most importantly, I'm able to be the person that I needed when I was growing up. That's mainly what drives me to do this work every day.”