Food, Glorious Food

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If you’ve lived in Austin for more than a few weeks, chances are good that you’ve come across a farmer’s market, a food trailer or an urban garden. When it comes to food, particularly the locally grown variety, Austin’s abundant foodie community is making a name for itself.

Perhaps less known is that one of the key players behind Austin’s strong food and community roots is also taking some big steps forward. The Sustainable Food Center (SFC) has been in Austin for nearly 40 years, and in that time has advocated for and helped develop local food systems and improved access to affordable, nutritious food.

But in all those years, the center hasn’t had, well, a center to call home. That will soon change— April marks the end of a three-year, $4.5 million capital campaign that will pay for a new center on 2.3 acres of donated land.

“We’re about to have this incredible new center, and we have a lot of these things happening in a coordinated way,” said Brenda Thompson, an out entrepreneur and SFC board member. “As a board member, it’s been exciting to see this huge groundswell of support.”

The new 7,000-square-foot center in East Austin will house SFC staff and a commercial kitchen, provide meeting and workshop space, and include a food pantry. A 2.3-acre community garden at the new center will also give neighbors a space to grow food and give SFC staff and volunteers a hands-on space where they can teach the principles of organic gardening.

“Much like our name says, we’re sustainable, and we want to move forward in a way that lets us expand and heighten programming while being conscious of resources going forward,” said Ronda Rutledge, SFC’s executive director. “We started in a portable in back of a school, so this has been an incredible gift.”

SFC and Austin’s LGBT community also have strong ties. From board and committee members to farmer partners and farmer’s market vendors, Austin’s gay and lesbian community members have been key figures in the organization’s growth; many have been in the pages of this magazine in recent months.

SFC remains committed to diversity. At the core of its mission is advocacy for food security and healthy food for all, not just those who can afford to buy organic groceries. Through cooking classes and relationships with local farmers, the center has tried to make a dent in some of the dismal statistics that plague Texans; according to the United States Department of Agriculture, Texas is ranked third in the nation for food insecurity.

It’s no accident the new center is calling East Austin its home, Thompson added.

“It’s right in the center of where things are needed, like [SFC program] The Happy Kitchen, the programs for kids—that’s a big part of what SFC does,” she said. “It’s helping prevent a lot of what we’re hearing about with obesity and poor health related to eating habits.”

SFC tries to tackle many problems related to food, from hunger relief all the way to obesity. Cooking classes taught by community members at The Happy Kitchen help low-income families learn how to prepare affordable and healthy food at home. Sprouting Healthy Kids provides schoolchildren with fresh produce and introduces them to gardening and cooking. And a double-dollar program at some Austin farmer’s markets matches dollar-for-dollar the amount of money spent on produce by those using food assistance, so that customers get twice the amount of fresh food for less money.

Rutledge said SFC went through many community conversations with the residents of the neighborhoods where the new center is slated to go up about what they’d most like to see from their new neighbor.

“With all our programming, we want it to be grassroots and community-led efforts to change our food system,” she said.

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