Grow, Share, Prepare.
It's the motto of Austin's Sustainable Food Center, and the nonprofit organization that teaches adults and children how to feed themselves with nutritious food finally has grown into its own permanent home. On September 24, SFC celebrated its new East Austin location at 2921 E. 17th Street with a huge grand opening — a move that has been 40 years in the making.
For almost 40 years, SFC has been the Sustainable Food Center without a center.
The SFC are the folks who run four farmers markets around town, as well as providing organic gardening classes, support for area farmers and interactive cooking classes and nutrition education. For almost 40 years, SFC has been the Sustainable Food Center without a center. With a permanent place to call home, SFC is now equipped to expand its programs, conduct cooking classes in a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen and host community events ranging from hands-on workshops to film screenings and public forums for change. The new 2.3 acre community garden adjacent to the property will also provide access for East Side neighbors to grow their own food, as well as for children and families to learn the principles of organic food production.
SFC also partners with the University of Texas, offering its farm-to-work program to faculty and staff. "It can be a challenge for busy employees to squeeze enough fruits and veggies into their day," says Claire Moore, the Work/Life Balance and Wellness Manager at UT. "By matching UT Austin with a local farmer, SFC makes it easy to provide fresh produce to employees. We appreciate the hard work, personal attention and local knowledge of the staff at SFC. They make getting produce fun. Many of our employees have tried new varieties of produce that they may not otherwise have tried if it were not for the farm-to-work program."
"Our main goal is to ensure that all Central Texans can grow, share and prepare healthy, local food." — SFC Executive Director Ronda Rutledge
The grand opening celebration of the new SFC facility was an all-day, community open house featuring tours of the new space, a photo booth and raffle and various events, demonstrations and activities. Speakers included Earl Maxwell, chief executive officer of St. David’s Foundation; Leslie Sweet, director of public affairs at HEB; Eddie Rodriguez, Texas state representative, and Shawn Cirkiel, executive chef and owner of Parkside Cafe.
CultureMap spoke with SFC's executive director, Ronda Rutledge, about this big move that was so long in the making.
CultureMap: Tell us a little bit about how the need and decision to move into a new home came about for SFC.
Ronda Rutledge: SFC has always wanted to have a permanent site in a location that best serves our client-base. For several years, the board and I had discussed the need for us to be more sustainable, putting dollars that were going toward rent toward agency programming and client services. When land was donated to us in Central East Austin by the Meredith family, in an area on public transportation and bordering a food desert, we began to entertain the idea of raising the capital to build our permanent home. It has been a community effort ever since.
CM: Tell us about the capital campaign to make it happen.
RR: We first worked with an outside consultant around feasibility — not so much about if we were going to do this, but more around how we would do it. This was in late 2008, which wasn’t the best timing from a fundraising standpoint. But after meetings with several community leaders, there was a resounding sentiment that this was the right time and the right place for the right mission. With consultant guidance, we put together our $4.5 million budget, hired a capital campaign director and began the process in earnest of raising money in 2010.
With a dream team of players who came together to design and construct both the training facility and the garden, we broke ground in May of 2012 and moved into our building in June of this year. The garden is still under development, but significant work is being done this month, and we’re hopeful for fall/winter preparation such that spring planting will ensue.
CM: What have some of the challenges been?
RR: Having never gone through a building project of this magnitude, we were challenged by the timing of permitting and other regulatory issues. Given the nature of this site and our being part of a larger social profit village within a transit oriented development, we’ve made strong efforts to ensure that we fully understand what we can and cannot do, as well as to be good neighbors and great stewards of this land that was a former industrial site. We are still challenged to raise the remaining $300,000 of our $4.5 million budget. Others who have gone through a capital campaign told us that the last bit is the hardest to raise, and that rings true for us. But we’re optimistic that we’ll get it done this year.
CM: Was there anything unexpected that happened along this journey?
RR: There were plenty of unexpected hiccups along the way, but nothing so dire that it detracted us from our goal of completing this project. While not unexpected, it’s been a happy consequence of our being here that so many community members have come to the center to support our efforts and participate in programming. As more word gets out that we’re here — offering food gardening workshops and leadership training, cooking and nutrition education classes and an East Side farmers market — we anticipate that more families in these surrounding neighborhoods will avail themselves of our services. We look forward to partnering with them.
CM: How did you make the big opening day event come together?
RR: Honestly, we decided to ensure that our Grand Opening was “A Day in the Life of SFC" — in other words, we wanted to showcase the programs that we have and the services that we provide. So it was fairly easy for program staff and volunteers to interface with participants in their respective areas of our center. We utilized partnerships we already have — like advisory council members as speakers, restaurant partners for lunch and farmers market vendors for food/beverages throughout the day — in order to have an authentic SFC experience at every level. With the all-hands-on-deck mentality of our entire staff, I think we pulled off a truly engaging and fun event that was welcoming and accessible to all.
CM: What are your near-future goals?
RR: Given our mission of cultivating a healthy community by strengthening the local food system and improving access to nutritious, affordable food, our main goal is to ensure that all Central Texans can grow, share and prepare healthy, local food. We want to increase the number of individuals/schools/communities who are growing food for themselves and their neighbors, increase the number of farmers/ranchers/producers who grow food for our region, increase the number of schools/hospitals/worksites that source their food locally and increase the number of families who cook healthy, delicious meals on a budget using local and seasonal produce and lean, clean sources of protein. We also plan to train other groups across the country on our seed-to-table approach, providing program replication training and technical assistance as they launch SFC-like services in their own communities.
At the end of the day, this work is about the physical, environmental, cultural and economic health of Central Texas and throughout. And we don’t do this work in a vacuum — it takes collaboration and partnership with many individuals, businesses, foundations, governmental entities and community-based organizations to affect change and reach our goals of hunger relief and sustainable agriculture. We are truly grateful for the support and partnership of everyone who not only helped us build our permanent home but who work alongside us daily to create a vibrant, local food system.