Chopping Beets

The True Meaning of Food Access

Food insecurity. Food desert. Food access.

Have you heard these words before, and not really understood what they meant? Over the years at SFC, we have spent a lot of time talking to you about “food access”, but what does it really mean?

From location to affordability, cultural relevancy to cooking skills, today we’re breaking down the 4 key barriers to accessing healthy, local food along with our strategies that have been proven to address them.

Farm Stand

Can you get to the food?

Geographic access, or where a person lives, is the first thing many people think about when it comes to food access. This is probably because of the popularity of the term “food desert,” used to describe areas where most residents don’t live near a grocery store.

When researchers noted people in food deserts also get food from corner stores, dollar stores, and fast-food restaurants the term “food swamp” emerged. This term clarifies that in some communities food retail options do exist but those options are typically high in salt, saturated fat, and added sugar.

While proximity to a grocery store is a factor in food access, we’re glad to see these terms in decline. They over-simplify the issue by focusing on mileage alone and omit other environmental factors, like whether there are sidewalks or bus stops to help folks get to the store.

Plus, both terms carry a negative connotation. They are usually imposed by people outside of the community and ignore other sources of food, such as gardens and farm stands.

In Austin, one unconventional food access strategy we’re proud to be a part of is the City of Austin’s Fresh for Less initiative.

With Fresh for Less, Farmshare Austin sets up weekly mobile markets in neighborhoods with socioeconomic or geographic barriers to fresh food. The mobile markets accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) and food is sold at reduced prices for all customers.

For Fresh for Less, SFC does outreach in communities near the mobile markets. We educate community health workers and health educators about the mobile markets in their area and attend community events like health fairs. We also provide nutrition education and recipe samples at the mobile markets.

Geographic access includes more than the distance from your home to a grocery store, and while it’s a part of food access, it is just one of many factors.

Farm Stand Sign

Can you afford the food you want to buy?

Affordability is fundamental to food access. Whether families have a specific food budget or not, most have a limit when it comes to what they can spend on food.

Food is a basic need. But it still competes with other essential expenses, such as housing, medical bills, and transportation. Buying fresh, healthy food can feel expensive, especially when you consider the time needed to prepare it.

Affordability can also extend beyond how much money is in the bank. This includes those who rely on federal food assistance benefits, such as SNAP or WIC (food assistance that is specifically for women, infants, and children).

Ability to afford food depends not only on how much cash a family has on hand, but also on how much assistance they receive, how long it lasts, and whether they can use their benefits at the places they shop.

At SFC, we address affordability in several ways. Through The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre®, our cooking and nutrition education program, we offer a free six-week class series in areas of Austin with high rates of poverty and diet-related disease. In the classes, we share recipes and strategies for buying and preparing healthy, affordable food.

The recipes come from our cookbook, Fresh Seasonal Recipes (look for a new edition coming later this month on our merchandise page!) and include cost per serving - the average is just $0.79. By choosing affordable recipes and sharing budget-friendly tips for grocery shopping and planning meals, we address the myth that eating well must be expensive.

For those who receive SNAP or WIC benefits, we’ve ensured our SFC Farmers’ Markets not only accept those benefits but also double them on fruit and vegetable purchases, up to $30 per market visit. This amplifies the purchasing power of SNAP and WIC customers for the healthiest options. By running the Double Up Food Bucks program at our markets and other participating markets in the Austin area (including the Fresh for Less mobile markets), we make it easier for families to invest in fresh, local produce.

Summer Squash Medley

Is it food you want to eat?

Sharing food traditions and trying new foods can be a beautiful thing, but we also want to help families access the foods that they already know and love. We support people in finding nearby, affordable food that is also relevant to their culture. People who didn’t grow up in the United States often have the greatest challenges when it comes to finding the foods they’re used to cooking.

Access to culturally relevant food is an important way to preserve food traditions and can also have great health benefits. Traditional diets from around the world are typically very healthy. The easier it is to stay connected to familiar flavors and ingredients, the easier it is to maintain a healthy diet in a new place.

In our Happy Kitchen classes, we encourage people to try new things while also celebrating their existing food traditions. Our recommendation for creating a healthy meal is simple: half of the meal should be fruits and vegetables, one-quarter grains, and one quarter protein. Participants connect with this approach because many diets and ingredients can fit into its design, and no one is asked to give up familiar favorites.

To further emphasize the value of culturally relevant foods, the last class of each six-week series ends in a potluck where participants are invited to bring a dish to share and encouraged to choose a favorite family recipe.

We’ve also found that gardening can be a great way for people to access culturally relevant ingredients. Many participants who attend our gardening classes or receive free seeds, plants, and compost through our Spread the Harvest program grew up in Mexico.

Growing plants like hoja santa and epazote is an affordable and convenient way to keep these ingredients on hand. but It may also be the only way to ensure consistent access since these foods can be hard to find at grocery stores.


Can you prepare it?

Many conversations about food access overlook a key last step. Bringing food home doesn’t guarantee it will be eaten. The healthiest food options are usually minimally processed, which means they’ll need to be “processed” (or prepared) at home. This requires time, knowledge, skills, and equipment.

Our Happy Kitchen classes feature recipes that are designed to share knowledge and skills, while also recognizing the knowledge and skills t each participant already has.

In many communities - particularly in communities that have traditionally had less access to wealth - there is often a long history of healthy cooking. But traditions can be disrupted when families relocate, when more family members start working outside the home, or as families begin to buy more processed food to save time or money.

In the Happy Kitchen, we recruit facilitators from the communities where our classes are held. This helps class participants see and celebrate how their friends and neighbors have stayed connected to their food traditions and/or created new healthy cooking routines that make sense for their lives today.

Our cookbook emphasizes recipes that can generally be made in 30 minutes or less of active cooking time and limit the use of specialty equipment or ingredients. In classes, we share strategies for repurposing leftovers so participants can cook once and eat twice.

Participants don’t leave the class having learned just one new recipe. We demonstrate each recipe in full, and everyone learns fundamental kitchen skills - such as knife skills, how to cook brown rice or dried beans from scratch, how to make a salad dressing, and more.

But our program is not a step-by-step guide to changing someone’s diet. We aim to create a space where participants can share their experiences, learn from the facilitators and each other, and reflect on what makes sense for their family.

Veggies on Cutting Board

Our Commitment to Food Access

In 2019, Sustainable Food Center introduced a bold new vision for our Central Texas food system.

To meet our goal of increasing the amount of local food Central Texans eat, some of our strategies will include supporting farmers who want to transition to more sustainable practices, helping large institutions add local food to their menus, and advocating for policy changes that support a local food system.

At the same time, SFC remains committed to ensuring that all Central Texans can access and cook local food.

Our work is informed by our comprehensive understanding of food access in Central Texas, as well as by feedback from our community about the barriers they experience and the solutions they envision for themselves.

We believe everyone deserves access to fresh, local, healthy, and culturally relevant food. We’re excited about our new vision, and we’re looking forward to continuing our work on food access and education.