Most parents can relate to Gloria Vera-Bedolla. She can pick up almost everything she needs during monthly grocery store runs except the thing she needs more of— time.
“I have a job that I work five days a week, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I'm a parent of a 7-year-old,” Vera-Bedolla says. “And so my biggest barrier is time.”
Time for grocery store runs is a tall hurdle for Vera-Bedolla and her neighbors. Del Valle is considered a food desert, since at least 33% of the low-income population lives more than one mile from a supermarket or grocery store.Getting fresh fruit and vegetables can take Del Valle residents hours, and for those who lack transportation getting food is even more complicated.
“You have to plan a trip to the grocery store because it's going to take you at least 20 minutes, let's say, for the closest grocery store,” Vera-Bedolla says.
Vera-Bedolla lives near Hornsby Bend, just north of Del Valle, but within the Del Valle ISD boundary. There are several convenience stores near her but she says fresh produce is limited and food is more expensive, so she makes the drive to Austin to shop at H-E-B instead.
“We spend, I would say, probably about $300, $350 a month if we go to an H-E-B. … If we go to the stores that are around here, that number will grow exponentially,” Vera-Bedolla says. “This makes health issues in our community worse because we don't have access to these fresh things. So, any time you're eating something out of a can, you have to realize that there's going to be added sugars, added salt,” Vera-Bedolla says.
To prepare for a grocery run, Vera-Bedolla says that she carefully takes about a week to make a list, then figures out what day out of the month she has the time to go. Depending on what time she makes the run, Vera-Bedolla usually sits in traffic for at least an hour because the road to her neighborhood she says is, “one way in, one way out.”
“It's disheartening sometimes to sit there and watch your groceries melt because it's so out of the way and there's so much traffic,” Vera-Bedolla says.
Areli Barrera lives near Del Valle High School and deals with a similar issue. Food options in her area come by way of fast food restaurants and convenience stores, so she makes a 30 minute commute to an H-E-B in Bastrop, often sitting through heavy traffic.
“We live so near to the Austin airport, so there's usually high traffic around that area, as well as construction happening,” Barrera says. “Sometimes there's lane closures that have to happen.”
For those who can get around, time and traffic can make grocery store runs a major hassle. But for those who can't drive, access to healthy food is a daily struggle. Cora Deary lives northeast of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and about half of a mile from the nearest convenience store. She doesn’t own a car and Del Valle lacks many public transportation options, Deary relies on one of her sisters to give her a ride to the H-E-B on East Riverside Drive where she does the majority of her grocery shopping.
“Out here, you can just get little stuff like bread or sodas, water and stuff like that. But it's not like H-E-B. We need one out here. Seriously,” Deary says.
Patricia King has lived near Del Valle High School for more than 20 years and has advocated for a grocery store, like an H-E-B, to be built since she moved to the area. In 2016, H-E-B purchased property near ABIA, on FM 973 and Texas Highway 71, but have yet to break ground on a store. King says that this has discouraged other grocery chains from setting up shop in Del Valle.
“The other chains are hesitant because they're not sure what H-E-B is going to do,” King says. “So our community is kind of like held hostage.”
Local H-E-B representatives passed on requests to be interviewed. But, Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who represents parts of Del Valle, says that H-E-B has told her the development of new stores are part of a formula-based business plan.
“The community has been underinvested in for several years and for retail to come in and to start up in these areas, they want to see rooftops is basically what they've told us,” Fuentes says. “The H-E-B will one day be there and we all can't wait for it, but until then, we're having to find short-term solutions,” Fuentes says.
And many short-term solutions have been in place for years. The Central Texas Food Bank hosts a food pantry at the Travis County Community Center at Del Valle, and community groups like the Del Valle Community Coalition and members of Cottonwood Baptist Church have dedicated their time to delivering ready-to-eat meals to their neighbors. Recently, the city of Austin voted to allocate funds from the American Rescue Plan towards food insecurity with the possibility of bringing a co-op style grocery store to the Eastern Crescent.
“Those conversations are just now taking place,” Fuentes says. “And so we're looking at either city or county-owned land, publicly available land. Looking at what dollars we have available, tools like the CDBG tool that's now become available. And from there, planning out a grocery store co-op that would come in and provide food for individuals living in the area in a way that meets the needs of the community.”
While Vera-Bedolla and folks in the Del Valle area await the arrival of a grocery store, it's the years of neglect to her area and the time lost having to travel to the grocery store that she says leaves her frustrated.
“It is a long, long day, especially for those of us that live out here, because of the travel time. There's one way in and one way out of these neighborhoods,” Vera-Bedolla says. “I hope that our part of Austin stops being overlooked.”
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