If you do not have a place to sleep because you are experiencing homelessness, you may not know where your next meal is coming from, either. Much of the food available in many poor neighborhoods, particularly in cities, is often from convenience stores or bodegas. This food often has poor nutritional value. Fresh fruits and vegetables, the basis of any healthy diet, are simply nowhere to be found. This is the predicament of food insecurity.
Food banks are valuable response to hunger and food insecurity, but not the only answer. Through food banks, local grocery stores and restaurants donate their surplus food which is then distributed to people in need. Food banks share the bounty of our communities with everyone, regardless of ability to pay, but availability is highly variable.
A flexible system is needed, one that can redirect surplus food from end-point distributors to those who need it. This would link food producers at every level to families who need it. As a practical matter, creating this kind of sustainability requires a community organization that takes ownership to create and manage this alternative food network.
In Austin, Texas, the Sustainable Food Center (SFC) does just that. Their motto is “Grow. Share. Prepare.” Austin is not generally thought of as a poor town, but the poverty rate is higher than the state average. Almost 9% of Austin gets by on 50% or less of the federal poverty level each month.
Sari Albornoz works with the producer end. SFC gives away seeds, seedlings, compost, and a bounty of information on how to grow organic food in central Texas. More importantly, SFC can track their grower’s progress and encourage sharing of harvests. “We ask them to share what they have with people they know, families, individuals, whoever,” said Albornoz. “We check in with them four times a year to ask what they are growing and what percentage they are sharing.” The tracking program has 400 contacts in the community and touches 10,000 backyard (or bigger) growers in the area. “We often go through the schools to find good contacts.”
SFC does not see homelessness as a barrier to growing food. “When we find a person experiencing homelessness who wants to grow their own food, we will locate them a plot and give them the seeds and knowledge they need to make it work,” Albornoz said. Working with a local church is often helpful in this instance. They have the resources to support and implement a local food plot. An advantage with connecting to the faith-based community is the capacity these organizations have to mobilize volunteers who are intertwined with the local community.
Virtually every entity in Austin that supplies food to the needy has had some contact with SFC. SFC has connected local community gardens with food banks that want their organic produce. Any gardener will tell you that when something is in season, there is plenty to go around. Many of these relationships have persisted for years.
SFC is also working the regional-grower-to-consumer connection through farmers markets. Through SFC, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) clients can buy their food at the farmers market. SFC is the first organization in Texas to offer double value coupons for SNAP clients shopping at farmers markets. Suzanne Santos, who facilitates farmers markets for SFC, said that it is a challenge to reach the 100,000 SNAP clients in the area. “The double value coupons are obviously a win for the client, but also for the farmer,” said Santos. SFC manages four farmers markets in Austin, with their newest one in an underserved neighborhood in East Austin.
The Sustainable Food Center’s executive director, Ronda Rutledge, said it is time for a national dialog about the American way of food. “Food is not cheap, and certainly food produced by agribusiness is not cheap. It is also not nutritious. We need a sustainable system, one that supports local growers of every size. People at every economic level need good, nutritious food, not food-like substances.”
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