Seeds of Change
The growth of the Sustainable Food Center: Blossoming from small organization tovaliant culinary force
In 1975, an Austin YMCA aligned themselves with an ambitious project called Austin Community Gardens (ACG) and began cultivating and harvesting homegrown food with the help of a small group of devoted grassroots activists. At its beginning, ACG had one core mission: to help low-income Austin residents utilize fertile land and learn to grow healthy, affordable food.
With the greens they rooted into the earth, the agricultural organization grew slowly but surely and in 1993, the nonprofit organization was incorporated into what we now know as the Sustainable Food Center (SFC). Today — almost 40 years since its beginnings — SFC has grown into a profound culinary force, and it just keeps blossoming.
As a matter of fact, in March of this year SFC reached an impressive milestone by opening its fourth weekly farmers' market location near Highway 183 and 51st Street.
"It's in the parking lot of the YMCA East [Communities Branch], which is really neat for us because it feels like we're coming back to our roots," Susan Leibrock, Community Relations Director of SFC, says. "Food access on the East Side has always been important to our mission because that's where there is the most prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases [in Austin]."
In addition to the new farmers' market location, just this past May SFC also attained a 2.3-acre plot of land from the Meredith family, which the center plans to use as a large teaching and community garden. The property also includes a 7,000-square-foot building that will serve as the center's new headquarters. "We are really excited about it because it continues to help us scale out and expand," Leibrock says. "We want this new garden to be completely run by the community."
She further emphasizes that given the current demands and waiting list of requests at the center, SFC is expected to grow in its largest strides ever by 2015. "Our local community and youth gardening program is expected to have a 30 percent increase in participation, and with our Farm to School program we expect to be in 100 percent of AISD schools by 2015. We're currently in one-third."
Even though the center itself has evolved vastly through the years, its initial mission has remained steadfast. The center still works diligently to provide members of the Austin community with the tools and knowledge required to grow their own food and has combined that with lessons about nutrition and health.
"The most immediate need after teaching people to grow their own food is to educate them about the nutritional value of their food," she says. "Nationally, that's also the next big thing as well. [Michelle Obama's] Let's Move! initiative really sparked and supported that goal."
For the past few years, the St. David's Foundation has collaborated with SFC on a number of projects and provided them with grants to achieve many of their projected goals. "They've been around for a long time," Roberto Rodriguez, Grant Officer at the St. David's Foundation, says. "In the last several years especially, they've shown they're a quality organization with a lot of strength. We're excited about helping them create an environment of change in the Austin community."
It comes as no real shock or surprise that the most noticeable growth in the culinary center has happened in the last five years or so. Similar to the Austin restaurant scene, SFC has gone from being a respected entity with a handful of hardworking volunteers, evolving into a bustling revolution with some substantial manpower behind it. So what's the secret behind their growth and success?
"We started linking ourselves to the local chef community," Leibrock says. "We tried to pair up local chefs with our farmers, and it's just gone from there. Whenever I see a new restaurant opening, the first thing I do is hightail it over there, introduce myself and ask them if they are aware of the farmers' markets in town."
Indeed, it has been vocal chef celebrities like Philip Speer, Sonya Coté, James Holmes, Jesse Griffiths — and many others — that have changed the way Austin consumers view and engage with local farmers and cuisine. Through their boisterous embracing of farm-fresh food, these chefs have taken what was once a culinary pastime and transformed it into something that is wildly in vogue. And the Austin community — from North, South, East and West — can't help but take notice.
No one can really predict the future, but with the rate at which the collaboration between the SFC and the community is growing, I'd be willing to bet that we'll continue to see seeds of progress and change sprouting all throughout Austin.
"The demand for SFC’s services has grown at a rate beyond what we can currently fulfill, given our existing space, infrastructure and resources," Ronda Rutledge, Executive Director of SFC, says. "With [our new] training facility we will be able to more than double our reach, making a greater impact on the health of Central Texas more than ever before."