Sprouting a Healthy Community

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If you want proof that Austin is still sometimes a small town at heart, visit the vendors at the Sustainable Food Center’s Farmers’ Market.

When Sheryl Simpson and Teresa Swann got their shop Pasta & Co. involved in the Farmers’ Market in 2004, they thought of their participation as a marketing move that would expose the shop to more Austinites. But they quickly found that one of the perks of selling their wares at the market was that they had become part of a network of food growers and lovers.

“We were initially asked to go by the gals from Eastside Café,” said Swann. She and Simpson, who are partners, have owned Pasta & Co. for 10 years. “We fell into this whole group of producers. All these people who were producing great products, and we didn’t even know they existed here in Austin. It was like a therapy session to visit with them–we all had similar issues, and all had a desire to grow our businesses.”

That community is at the heart of the Sustainable Food Center’s mission. While the center began in 1993, its roots go back to 1975, when Austin Community Gardens launched as a project of the YWCA. In 2001, the two entities merged to strengthen the programs and goals both organizations held in common. Among those are efforts to steer individuals– particularly those with fewer opportunities to be around and purchase fresh foods–to healthy food choices, and give them the tools and knowledge needed to participate in a vibrant local food system.

Suzanne Santos, the director of the Sustainable Food Center Farmers’ Market, said in its early days, the Center was based around a student farm in East Austin. Its goals then were to give communities access to fresh foods and educate people about how to grow food, similar to its mission today. When mothers buying food from the Center’s farmers with WIC benefits chose fruits over vegetables, the Center’s staff learned they avoided the vegetables because they didn’t know how to cook them. And so the Happy Kitchen–also known as La Cocina Alegre–was born, adding a third leg to the Sustainable Food Center’s stool: giving the community access to fresh foods through its farmers’ markets, teaching them how to grow food through community gardens and teaching people how to cook healthy, fresh foods through its Happy Kitchen classes.

Now at more than 30 years old, the Sustainable Food Center’s roots reach deep in Austin. Three farmers’ markets, farm-to-work, school and cafeteria programs, Happy Kitchen classes and community gardens have allowed the Center to reach thousands of residents through its classes and garner hundreds of thousands of customers through its farmers’ markets.

“Food can be buying long term health insurance a tomato at a time,” Santos said. “In the end, it is less expensive to live that way than buying fast food.”

At the center of that success and the Sustainable Food Center’s mission are its vendors.

You don’t have to tell Simpson and Swann about the benefits of fresh food; their business is based on the concept. Pasta & Co. has been making fresh pastas since 1983. Swann, who started working for original owner Marilou Morales in 1991, said the shop started out making just a few pastas. Now its menu includes more than 20 different types of pastas, entrees and sauces–from Swedish-infused raviolis to Cajun risottos.

Still, she and Swann said their awareness about the benefits of fresh, local food has grown in the time they’ve worked with the Sustainable Food Center. At the same time, they’ve seen Austin’s collective food awareness grow.

“It makes sense to get your food as close to home as possible,” Simpson said. “There are definitely aspects we weren’t thinking about 20 years ago.

“People who go to the (farmers’) markets know more about what they feed their dog than most people know what they’re feeding their kids,” Swann chimed in.

Swann and Simpson–who have been together for 23 years after meeting in college and then reconnecting in Austin–said that a general tolerance and great outdoor opportunities are among the reasons they love living in Austin. “I like how much of an outdoor community Austin is. And that too plays into our involvement in the farmers’ market. We’re big campers and kayakers, and we like to be outside. That’s one of my favorite things about Austin.”

Swann said that Pasta & Co.’s original owner, Morales, was also a lesbian. And while it wasn’t her goal to sell the business to another gay woman, she was pleased that Simpson did end up the next owner.

“I think it made her happy to continue that,” Swann said. “When Marilou started, there weren’t a lot of niche food producers in Austin. She really was out there struggling for a long time. Sheryl helped her a lot, and I think it made her happy that [the business] remained lesbian owned.”

Pasta & Co. now participates in two of the Sustainable Food Center’s farmers’ markets, downtown and Sunset Valley. And, like the Center, Pasta & Co. continues to thrive based on the curiosity of the Austin community, Swann said.

“We don’t exist, just like the (farmers’) market doesn’t exist, without the people,” she said. “They don’t have to buy from us, it’s more than anything participating in your community and going to your local food producers first.”

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