Just northeast of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Del Valle, tucked away behind an overgrowth of tall grass and trees, an aural togetherness can be heard from Cottonwood Baptist Church.
“It's a church that allows anybody who wants to be a part of something to be a part of something,” the Rev. Byron K. Jackson, interim pastor of Cottonwood Baptist Church says. “The fact that we are hidden to some degree, forgotten to some degree, some of the necessities that make it to other communities have not made it to ours.”
Many of the residents that live near Cottonwood Baptist Church don’t have access to healthy food. So, Jackson and church volunteers distribute healthy, ready-to-eat meals to the community. He says it’s a calling.
“We're simply doing what we've been called to do by the word of God, which is to take care of one another, to see to the needs of the needy, to help those who are not able to help themselves,” he says.
Volunteers drop off 125 meals every Tuesday of which about half are for members of the congregation. They deliver, door-to-door, to about 40 households in the community surrounding the church.
“The families are excited about the program. In fact, most of the places that we go, they're waiting for us. They're looking forward to seeing us,” Jackson says.
On average, there are about six volunteers from the congregation that help out weekly, including Jackson. They provide more than a healthy meal to the local community.
“It's not just the food. It's about the interaction, the conversation, because we do more than just drop the food off and keep going,” Jackson says. “To just let them know that they matter, you know? A lot of times people, when they're in the position of need, don't always feel like they matter.”
Julian Campos has lived behind the church on Mary Street since February 2020. He has limited mobility, diabetes and counts on his son, Joe Campos, for most of his meals. He says without the weekly meal he receives from Cottonwood Baptist Church, he would be in pretty bad shape.
“They make sure I eat good. It’s not slop. It’s not fast food. ... If it wasn’t for them during the winter time and during the pandemic, I’d be a lot worse off than I am now,” Campos says. “I think the church here in this area really works hard to take care of the neighborhood. I look forward to seeing them.”
Food insecurity in Travis County disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities. According to a study by Austin Public Health, 11% of African American Austin residents and 9% of Austin Hispanics live in areas with limited access to healthy foods. An estimated 77% of Del Valle residents identify as Hispanic or Latino and an estimated 7.4% identify as Black or African American. The mostly rural area also has a high concentration of low-income households.
“Historically we know this, communities who are mostly minority, don't always get the consideration that other communities do,” Jackson says.
Cottonwood Baptist Church had been looking for a way to serve their local community for years. An opportunity finally arose in September 2020 with The Cook’s Nook, a collaborative culinary hub founded by Joi Chevalier. At the onset of the pandemic, Chevalier started a program called Keep Austin Together that partnered with local nonprofits to provide healthy meals to residents facing food insecurity.
“We were in production the week of April 27, . Staff, team, menus, distribution delivery, the nonprofits on board who would do the distribution, who know their communities,” Chevalier says. “They knew who needed food, who were really nutritionally challenged.”
According to Austin Public Health, the food insecurity rate in Austin is estimated to be more than 16%, heavily affecting communities like the one near Cottonwood Baptist Church. Many are affected by barriers to healthy food access including proximity, availability, household income and mobility.
“We have a lot of elders in the community who are challenged in transportation and getting places and being able to go and get meals,” Jackson says. “We do have some fast food, but I think what we would desire to have in this area would be access to fresh food.”
The nearest grocery store offering fresh produce and healthy food options is at least a 10 minute drive, but there are several corner stores near Cottonwood Baptist Church. Through a partnership with the City of Austin called Healthy Corner Stores Program, The Cook’s Nook offers ready-to-eat meals that they call Mosaic Meals at neighborhood convenience stores in Austin. However, this program is not currently in Del Valle.
“Mosaic Meals is now at three convenience stores in neighborhoods who don't have food access or groceries,” Chevalier says. “I think it would be a fantastic program for Del Valle.”
Currently, the Healthy Corner Stores Program is in six Austin stores with three of them offering Mosaic Meals. The program gives owners a subsidy on products and sets them up with a cooler containing fresh produce from Segovia Produce, LTD. to sell at an affordable price. Carol Fraser, the food systems program coordinator with the City of Austin, is looking to expand the program to Del Valle where convenience stores are abundant.
“My understanding of Del Valle is that there really aren't a lot of healthy food options, food retail options in the area. I know that residents there have been trying to get a grocery store to set up for many years,” Fraser says. “So, what's cool about the Healthy Corner Stores Program is it takes advantage of already existing infrastructure.”
While the community near Cottonwood Baptist Church waits for a grocery store and programs like the Healthy Corner Stores Program to arrive, The Cook’s Nook and the volunteers of the church are filling the void. But, Jackson says that much more work needs to be done.
“It helps, but that can only go so far. We really need much more done in the area,” Jackson says. “My ideal vision for this community would be just that access to all the things that the community needs. Not just access to it, but the ability to provide for others, that this community would thrive.”
It's the coming together of his community, he says, that can help solve food insecurity.
“The only way to solve any of these issues, it's going to take some togetherness. And as people, we have to come together with a common goal, with a common love to get that accomplished,” Jackson says.
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