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Like every other city in America, Austin, Texas has changed in the time of coronavirus. One of the first cities to signal the pending impact with the cancellation in early March of its iconic music festival SXSW, Austin continues to look for ways to protect its communities. In keeping with their local mantra “Keep Austin Weird,” they are ever creative in their approach, addressing issues like food insecurity in low-income areas and the economic downturn of the restaurant industry with neighborly care. Austin non-profit Sustainable Food Center (SFC) has come up with the ingenious plan of building low-cost grocery markets inside of local restaurants that would otherwise be shut down due to the pandemic. Additionally, they are offering affordable farm boxes that restaurants can sell online or direct to under-resourced neighborhoods around the greater Austin area. And all of this is being done at no cost to the restaurants, thanks to funding from the City of Austin. 

The Neighborhood Pop-up Grocery (NPG) is a life-saver for beloved local businesses, offering them a much-needed profit source and allowing them to continue to serve their communities, providing healthy produce, meat, eggs, and pantry goods to anyone and everyone. This is a win-win — supporting local farmers by purchasing food that would have otherwise gone to waste, keeping restaurant staff employed and–most importantly–putting healthy food on the table in a time of heightened need. 

SFC and Texas company Foodshed Investors created NPG with emergency assistance funding approved by the Austin City Council to help “address food insecurity” in the city. A recent report from PolicyLink and The Food Trust closely reviewed 132 studies and concluded that many low-income communities, communities of color and sparsely populated rural areas lack sufficient opportunities to buy healthy, affordable food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 39.4 million Americans continue to live in communities where it is far easier for residents to buy grape soda than a handful of grapes. Food insecurity was a problem before coronavirus, but it’s an even bigger problem now, impacting residents of both urban and rural areas across the country, compounded by disproportionately higher rates of diet-related disease and a loss of commercial vitality required to sustain healthy communities and local economies. 

The Neighborhood Popup Grocery Project is looking to replace that soda pop with real fruit, and so far it’s working. Many locations offer 50 percent off for SNAP participants and over a dozen restaurants have now converted their dining rooms into community markets, including Nixta Taqueria, Eden East, Hillside Farmacy, Big Easy Bar and Grill, Hecho en Mexico, Killa Wasi, Sa-Ten, The Cavalier and Mr. Catfish. Eden East and Hillside Farmacy are selling produce straight from their farm, along with bread from Easy Tiger. Vendors include Common Market Texas, Farmshare Austin and Urban Roots, among others. Pop-up groceries are open during restaurant operating hours and each restaurant offers its own options for pickup and delivery. NPG, which was set to conclude mid-June, will now extend through September 30 and Sustainable Food Center is inviting additional local businesses to come on board. Feeding Austin is no small task, but NPG offers a way, neighbor to neighbor, to survive and thrive.

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