Originally published in Forbes, Food Tank President and Refresh Working Group (RWG) member Danielle Nierenberg discusses the limits and possibilities of technology in Austin’s local food system. Thanks to Dani and so many other working group members, panel participants, and members of Austin’s vibrant food ecosystem, Refresh @ SXSW brought these issues to life, with powerful activations and searching conversations about the role technology can play in refreshing the nation’s food system.
That one in four households in Austin, Texas are food insecure is well known and well documented. And many residents living east of I-35, in particular, have to drive more than a mile—sometimes more than 10 miles—to reach the nearest supermarket. Historically under-resourced, East Austin’s lack of grocery stores and uneven availability of fresh foods is a legacy of segregation dating back to the 1920s that has disproportionately impacted the city’s Black and Latino communities. The City of Austin has been working hard to address food security in the area, aided by the leadership and advocacy of Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Edwin Marty, the city’s food policy manager.
The city’s mobile markets, like Fresh for Less, are helping to bring fresh produce at wholesale prices direct to consumers. “Refresh: Food + Tech, from Soil to Supper,” a recent report by the Refresh Working Group, convened by Google and comprised of more than 30 partners across the nation, notes that while the shift to online grocery shopping has contributed to the decline of brick-and-mortar supermarkets, there could also be a silver lining. For example, the success of the USDA’s Online Purchasing Pilot for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) allows families living below the poverty line to purchase fresh produce at half the cost from participating online grocers.
E-commerce services and mobile platforms, like online SNAP, might help to address disparities in food access throughout the city by bringing food to a family’s front door. The Refresh report also points out many ways that emerging technologies—like machine learning apps, as just one example—can help to improve food access when those tools are both affordable and user-centered.
In order to achieve an equitable food ecosystem in Austin, these systemic issues must be addressed with multi-pronged approaches. Empowering entrepreneurs is another way that the local community is working to ensure a food secure Austin. When the doors of The Cook’s Nook first opened in East Austin in 2017, it was the city’s very first purpose-built culinary incubator. A commercial production kitchen and coworking facility on Thompson Lane, east of Highway 183, it remains the only space in the local area with the necessary business and production infrastructure for fledgling food entrepreneurs to launch their consumer-packaged goods, catering, food truck, R&D, meal kit and other food service businesses. It combines technology process and access with business development resources and puts them into the hands of people who need it the most.
The Cook’s Nook draws on Silicon Valley’s principles of testing, adapting and improving an initial business proposition to help businesses—particularly those owned by women and underserved communities—find their footing and get into the market faster. By pooling essential resources collectively, the organization has helped more than 40 member companies to reduce the costly overhead and capital expenses that can prevent small businesses from finding success.
It’s an important venture given the uphill battle faced by food businesses. While reliable stats are hard to come by, the Austin City Council has recognized this struggle by recently approving funding for a study of the disparities that minority and women-owned businesses face in the local area. Meanwhile, with the support of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, local organizations have organized events like Soul Food Truck Fest, Food Truck Boot Camp and Taste of Black Austin to promote black-owned food businesses and to recognize the influence of entrepreneurship, food and farming in black history and American culture.
The growth of Austin’s local and regional food economy is, in part, building from the thriving $31 billion local tech sector. By comparison, the food sector is estimated at roughly $4 billion. And together, food and technology represent more than a third of the city’s economy. A testament to the important relationship between food and technology is the “Food & Tech Austin” meetup, founded in 2014 and now at nearly 900 members today.
Projects like the Refresh Working Group, which The Cook’s Nook has joined as a partner with Google and Food Tank, seek to ensure that the benefits of technology and the economic prosperity of the tech sector are evenly distributed across Austin and across the United States. In this year’s SXSW Food Track, Refresh will take over the Google Fiber Space on March 12 to showcase local foods and to offer an interactive experience to educate conference attendees about the future of food.
Austin’s local food and technology communities are both vital to ensuring a healthy and prosperous city. By joining together, they are sharing the challenges and opportunities within Austin’s food system—and showing how local food entrepreneurs are at the center of social, economic and technological innovation.