By Melissa Federspill and Mary Minor
The San Antonio Fruit Tree Project was established in 2014 by two graduate students at the University of Texas San Antonio. This program provides a community-based solution for combating food insecurity in low-income urban neighborhoods.
In 2014, when we started the San Antonio Fruit Tree Project, we were captivated by the potential in San Antonio for growing fruit. It was evident that the city was built on fertile ground, and that we live among a hidden bounty of oranges, lemons, limes, pomegranates, and figs, just to name a few. The number of trees we cataloged from our windshield survey of urban neighborhoods was enough to spark a thousand ideas about local food production and the potential we hold as a city for unlocking one of the biggest inequalities we face—access to fresh food. After our first season, we were off and running. The excitement from harvesting hundreds of pounds of fruit from one tree was awe inspiring. The good graces of the citizens of our city also impressed us. People generously donated their fruit, willing to give to others. We found that people want to help, and hate the idea of food waste. Our project was taking root, and we were determined to make our contribution toward closing the food inequality gap in San Antonio.
Two years later, we began to dig deeper into our project. We wondered what other implications could be drawn and if we needed to consider a bigger picture. Is our fruit tree project just one piece of the pie? What is the potential for urban agriculture in our city to help solve the food access quandary? And more specifically, what does the landscape for fresh food access in our city look like? What other social justice issues are we facing? How do we and how can we help solve these issues? On the food access forefront, one thing is for sure. The Food Policy Council of San Antonio is a huge resource, and a mega contributor in aiding and creating solutions.
The mission of the SA Fruit Tree Project has morphed over time. Research has always given us a more in depth social perspective. We applied this concept to our project. Starting with food access, we looked at the state of our city. Then we looked at how other cities manage food access. We used the USDA as a resource for defining the meaning of “fresh food access” and “food deserts.” The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income and economically depressed neighborhood located more than one mile from a large grocer. Our methodology allows us to create a visual representation of food access in San Antonio. We feel visual depictions of social problems are key ingredients to education and mining community support.
By applying the USDA definition of food deserts, we got an even clearer picture of the state of our city. What we found reveals that the majority of the city resides in a food desert. We took an ever closer look, and asked the question, ‘If we splice up the city into their respective council districts, are some districts worse off than others?’ Looking at our city by council districts is another key tool for education and public policy initiatives.
Here’s what further research taught us. We are a city where socioeconomic status is polarized. By considering three variables that aid in determining socioeconomic status—median income, education, and poverty—we could look at the bigger picture, and see how our city is evolving. Our maps indicate a clear pattern of higher income and home value mainly clustering on the Northern part of the city.
The data unfolds a story of food access in San Antonio. Now under the umbrella of Urbe-SA, an urban design studio formed to address social justice issues in San Antonio, the San Antonio Fruit Tree Project is committed to researching and illuminating the data that sheds light on this story. It is up to us as community members to write the next chapter. By applying research to social justice issues, we can help create solutions across our city. This is our passion and our privilege. The fruit tree project is just the beginning for us. We envision a more equitable future for San Antonio, but it will take many self-directed community efforts to make this future possible. We are committed to continuing to work with the Food Policy Council of San Antonio, and appreciate the role it plays in gathering and supporting grass roots endeavors in our city.