Access Denied: Sustainable Food Center | Austin, TX

Learn how the Sustainable Food Center in East Austin conducted outreach and interviews for a community food assessment and what came of the results.

Photo: Hero Kids Planting, Sustainable Food Center

East Austin is a community of about 24,000 people, primarily Hispanic and African-American. The area covers about six square miles, and encompasses strong neighborhoods and well-established minority-owned businesses. However, poverty and diet-related diseases are widespread.

In 1994, the Sustainable Food Center (SFC) initiated a study of food access in East Austin, with the goals of raising awareness and forming a food policy council to help address food access issues. SFC is a non-profit organization that works to develop sustainable food systems through local, state and national initiatives. The study was planned and implemented over a period of eight months by SFC’s then-Director, Kate Fitzgerald, and VISTA volunteer Jon Schragg with the support of the SFC board of directors. The Eastside Advisory Board, a group of community stakeholders, also provided project guidance.

Key project expenses included staff time and printing for the report. SFC paid for the study through their core funds, plus federal government support for the VISTA volunteer’s salary. SFC requested donations to help cover printing costs for the report.

Extensive community input was gathered through interviews with over 200 residents. The SFC staff were both bilingual and lived in the neighborhood, and they made it a high priority to gather information in ways that would build trust and yield meaningful responses. They conducted extensive community outreach designed to engage residents in settings in which the residents felt comfortable. The staff worked through trusted community leaders who would introduce them and encourage community members to talk to them. (Of all the people they asked to help in this way, everyone agreed.) Outreach was conducted at churches, health clinics, elementary schools, public housing, neighborhood associations, grocery stores, farmers’ markets, restaurants, bus stops and by going door to door.

In these interviews, SFC staff focused on engaging community members in conversations to identify their concerns about the local food system, and recorded notes afterward. SFC staff felt that these informal conversations conducted by local residents were more effective at soliciting honest responses than a survey administered by an outsider would have been.   The project also analyzed census data and conducted detailed surveys at neighborhood grocery and convenience stores. The researchers compared selection and prices in East Austin with stores outside the neighborhood. Like similar studies in other cities, these surveys demonstrated that low-income East Austin residents generally paid higher prices and had a narrower selection of groceries available than people in other parts of the city.

The Austin study was conducted with modest resources by people who had a solid base in the community, and using methods that were sensitive to the community context. They successfully built on these strengths to create an accurate and compelling picture of food access that generated impressive outcomes.

The assessment results were published in a 1995 report titled Access Denied: An Analysis of Problems Facing East Austin Residents in Their Attempts to Obtain Affordable, Nutritious Food. The report proposed that a food policy council be established to address these problems, and recommended practical solutions for improving food access in East Austin. Other recommendations included:

  • A new bus route that provided transportation from the Eastside to the two biggest supermarkets
  • Legislation that allows state land to be used free of charge for community gardens or farmers’ markets
  • Complete renovation of a grocery store in the neighborhood
  • Increased awareness about food access
  • Establishment of a food policy council with in-kind support from the city and county


Source: What’s Cooking in Your Food System: A Guide to Community Food Assessment, Kami Pothukuchi et al, Community Food Security Coalition, 2002.

Updated 6/2013