Seventy-two-year-old Patricia King wants to see a grocery store in her community before she dies.
King has lived in Del Valle, an unincorporated area in southeastern Travis County, since the 1980s. Though it has grown over the years, and H-E-B purchased a tract of land there in 2016, she’s yet to see a store break ground.
“The simple things that other communities have, we don’t have,” King said. “I’ve always said I would like to see a grocery store [here] before I meet my maker.”
The coronavirus pandemic has left many Americans unsure of where their next meal is coming from and forced some to choose between forgoing a paycheck or increasing their risk of exposure to COVID-19 by leaving home to work. In areas like Del Valle that have grappled with food-access issues and health-care gaps for decades, the pandemic has exacerbated disparity.
“It’s only further demonstrated the divide between the haves and the have-nots,” community organizer Vanessa Fuentes said. “Our area already struggles with food insecurity and now it’s only heightened because now you have families whose breadwinner may have lost their job or their hours may have been cut.”
Fuentes is a member of the Del Valle Community Coalition, a group that’s been advocating for better infrastructure and services for the last decade. Now, the group is focused on pandemic response. It began distributing meals at Del Valle High School last week as part of a county-supported food access network, a program the group will continue through the end of May.
“The need is real, and the struggle is real,” Fuentes said. “We’re targeting hard-to-reach populations. These are individuals who are immuno-compromised, elderly, people that are differently abled.”
When the Central Texas Food Bank had a drive-thru distribution day in Del Valle a couple weeks ago, about 1,600 households received food boxes. Fuentes, who volunteered at the event, said the food bank still had to turn away about 70 cars.
“These organizations that are trying to address the need, they’re doing as much as they can, but the demand has greatened,” she said.
The statewide nonprofit Children at Risk released maps last week outlining ZIP codes that lack adequate access to food to increase awareness of vulnerable areas during the COVID-19 pandemic. The maps show 11 Central Texas ZIP codes are at high risk of food insecurity, including the neighborhoods of Del Valle, Montopolis and parts of East Austin.
Del Valle is often referred to as a food desert, meaning the nearest grocery store is 10 to 15 miles away. The distance is especially problematic for people who don’t have adequate transportation. (Capital Metro services only a portion of Del Valle.) There aren’t many restaurants, either, other than some fast food joints and gas stations or convenience stores. But the food there is typically more expensive and less nutritious than what grocery stores offer.
King, who’s part of the community coalition, has been advocating for a grocery store in Del Valle for the last several years. H-E-B bought land at the corner of FM 973 and Texas 71, but said Monday it was purchased "in advance of [its] immediate needs" and that it doesn't know when it will build a store.
In a statement, H-E-B said it was focusing on completing its newest store in South Austin, though its grand opening had been pushed back because of the pandemic.
King said it’s been hard to see H-E-B expand elsewhere in Central Texas and get so much praise in the media – as it has recently for its response to COVID-19 – when she feels her community has been left in the lurch.
“I think it’s insulting to us out here,” she said.
Residents also felt neglected when Central Health, the local health care district, closed several of its CommUnityCare Health Centers in East Travis County in March. CommUnityCare said it lacked adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them open, and many of the clinics were too small to safely operate during the pandemic. But members of the community said they felt that by closing, the health centers were retreating from people who needed them most.
“We’ve been advocating for years to address these issues, like food insecurity, inadequate mass transit, lack of infrastructure,” said Susanna Woody, president of the Del Valle Community Coalition and a Del Valle ISD school board member. “And then COVID comes in, and they take away our health care resources and just make life harder for a community that’s already underserved and underrepresented.”
After acquiring more PPE and reducing the number of patients coming to the clinics by ramping up telehealth services, Central Health reopened some of these clinics, including the one in Del Valle and Hornsby Bend in mid-April. But they’re not permanent fixes. Hornsby Bend’s is a temporary site, and both locations have limited hours.
The nearest hospital is 19 miles away for some residents, says Tina Byram, vice president of the Del Valle Community Coalition.
“With COVID being as serious as it is, 19 miles is far,” Byram said. “In an emergency, it’d be 26 minutes driving, and with roads being as tight as they are, it’s a matter of life and death.”
Central Health said in April that it plans to pay special attention to East Travis County during the pandemic, since many low-income and high-risk individuals live in the area. A report from UT’s Institute for Health Policy mapped areas of Austin that are at the highest risk for developing severe COVID-19 cases. Researchers looked at the distribution of underlying health conditions among the population as well as income levels. The areas that had both the highest prevalence of risk factors and the highest financial need are predominantly in eastern parts of the county.
CommUnityCare began offering drive-thru COVID-19 testing locations in Del Valle and surrounding areas in April on a rotating basis. The testing is free of charge and people don’t need documentation or insurance.
Byram and Woody, who urged leaders to reopen the clinics, said they’re happy about the reopenings and the expansion of testing into East Travis County. But building trust with health care authorities is still a challenge.
“We’ve been told they wouldn’t be charging for testing and everything else, but how do you convey that to a community that doesn’t have a lot of trust to begin with because they’ve been underserved for so long?” Byram said. “I mean, trust is hard to get back when a community is constantly being burned.”
Central Health was awarded $3.6 million from the coronavirus relief bill in early April to support its health centers as they respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The health care district says it’s working to address health disparities and wants to ensure people with low incomes have access to information about testing and treatment. While many services have moved online during the pandemic, Central Health says it's using outreach strategies like direct mail, phone calls and texting so people who don’t have internet access still receive information.
Byram and the rest of the Del Valle Community Coalition are working to bring information to residents, too. The coalition recently merged with another organization called the Del Valle Blast, which now serves as the organization’s media division to help educate underserved populations about available services through social media and other types of outreach.
And even after the pandemic comes to an end, the coalition’s leaders know they’ll still have work ahead of them.
“We need a permanent [health care] facility,” Byram said. “We need to continue these conversations with Central Health, and we need to continue our conversations to get food resources out here.”
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