conquering food insecurity
Sustainable Food Center: Cultivating a healthier Austin
Thanksgiving is fast approaching, with Christmas right on its heels. The holidays are a time when many of our thoughts turn to food; and in Austin, often those thoughts are of healthier ways to cook and eat while supporting the local economy and food sustainability.
The Sustainable Food Center is here to help. If you haven't heard of SFC before, they are the folks who run the downtown Austin Saturday Farmer's Market, as well as several other farmer's markets around town. But their work goes far beyond the markets. SFC is also heavily involved in the local good food movement through cooking classes, food education programs for children, and a Farm Direct program that connects local farmers with area hospitals, schools and worksites.
"Sustainable Food Center’s mission is to cultivate a healthy community by strengthening the local food system and improving access to nutritious, affordable food," says Susan Leibrock, the Community Relations Director of SFC. "Although the 'good food movement' has made many leaps and bounds over the past ten years, and even more rapidly in the past five, we need to have more individuals and families personally taking action to increase the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables."
Making a conscious effort to eat local, organic and sustainably as much as possible has huge nutritional and health benefits, of course; but it also has a major environmental impact and keeps dollars in our local economy by supporting local farmers and food artisans. I talked with Susan about how the Sustainable Food Center is working to make that happen for as many Austinites as possible.
Can you expand a little bit on the “seed to table” concept of SFC?
From seed to table, SFC creates opportunities for individuals to make healthy food choices and to participate in a vibrant local food system. Through organic food gardening, relationships with area farmers, interactive cooking classes and nutrition education, children and adults have increased access to locally grown food and are empowered to improve the long-term health of Central Texans and our environment.
I read on your website that Texas is third in the nation for food insecurity. What does this mean? How is SFC working to combat this? And what does the average citizen need to know?
Food Insecurity is the term the USDA replaced “Hunger” with in 2007, as it seemed more appropriate to our times, in essence: we no longer have citizens dying of starvation in large numbers as we did during the Great Depression. While 14-15% of the U.S. population is food insecure, or hungry, over two-thirds of the population is overweight, and of that number, over half are obese. The number of overweight people has surpassed the number of hungry people globally, as of 2009. Being overweight or obese is seen as a stigma, and people are punished with marginalization socially if they do not maintain a “normal” weight. What the public needs to know is that many, many overweight people do not have access to adequate nutrition. Barriers include economic, language, transportation, cultural and many more. Unnecessary subsidies of corn, wheat and soy by our federal government need to be stopped! SFC is working deep within low-income communities to stem the tide of obesity and diet-related disease through innovative solutions like The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre and our neighborhood farm markets.
It seems that over the past two or three generations we have gotten so into the mindset of packaged foods, fast foods, processed foods, etc. that we've gotten away from whole foods. In your Sprouting Healthy Kids education program, do you see kids embracing this and getting excited about it?
We do! In 2010 we completed our 3-year Farm to School pilot project, Sprouting Healthy Kids, funded by Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and we now receive funding from additional sources specific to our joint project with Marathon Kids, which has expanded into not only middle but elementary schools. We are working in 14 schools total, and will be moving into 40 others in AISD this fall focusing on our Farm to School initiative—meaning, students will be receiving fresh food from local farms in their school cafeterias, as this smaller number of schools currently do, and also have the opportunity for in-class lessons and after school clubs focused on the importance of “where our food comes from.” As our Advisory Council member, Alice Waters, is fond of saying, “If they grow it themselves, they’ll eat it!”
What do you think are the major challenges of changing the way food is consumed for future generations?
We’ve been indoctrinated for as you say, two to three generations now, that our food comes in a package, and that the corporations have “food under control.” We now see, through consistent foodborne illnesses, prevalence of food deserts and the very bodies of our children and adult populace, that this is not the case. Our industrial food system is very much out of control, and organizations such as SFC, including the Community Food Security Coalition, of which we are founding members, are addressing the problems and offering innovative solutions on a community-by-community basis. Top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions proposed by industry and government may be well-meaning, but they are far from effective or appropriate to each different market around the U.S. It is an important time to pay attention, especially with Farm Bill 2012 coming down the pipeline.
How have the farmers' markets grown and been embraced by the Austin community since you’ve been doing it?
The Austin community has been supportive of our markets beyond measure. 30% growth from 2009-2010 and subsequent growth over 20% year over year has demonstrated both the interest in having high quality, locally grown food and also the village meeting place feel which farmers’ market imparts. We started Austin Farmers’ Market, now called SFC Farmers’ Market in 2003 in downtown Austin. SFC Farmers’ Market at The Triangle began in 2007 as a response to citizens in north-central Austin requesting a mid-week and farther north market site, as well as our farmers, many of whom had the bandwidth to harvest twice a week and wanted a second market. We were asked to take on management of the market at Sunset Valley in March 2012, now SFC Farmers’ Market at Sunset Valley, by the City of Sunset Valley, and the farmers and food artisans, 85% of whom wanted to stay at the Toney Burger Center location, and did.
How are your Citizen Gardener and Happy Kitchen classes connecting the community and bringing information and education?
Citizen Gardener provides Central Texans with the tools they need to grow their own food as well as inspiring them to share this knowledge with others. It's a ten-hour course that provides hands-on organic gardening instruction, held in January-March and August-October. The series covers essential knowledge for growing food in Central Texas, including the basics of constructing raised beds, composting, and rainwater collection. Upon completion of the series, students complete ten hours of volunteer service at local gardens and farms, both to enhance their knowledge and to employ their new skills to benefit the community.
The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre is very community-driven as well. It is so grassroots that until recently, the general public knew very little of SFC’s cooking and nutrition classes. It was only in 2010 that we began offering a few for-fee classes in addition to the free classes we will continue to offer year round in the underserved communities of Central Texas. The majority of our funding comes from foundations, with some additional funding coming from government grants, a handful of corporations and lastly, individual donors. We are working to grow our individual supporter base, and it’s folks like you, Shelley, who shop at the farmers’ markets and tell friends about the services we have been offering in the community for over 35 years that truly helps us continue our work!
To find out more, visit the Sustainable Food Center website or call (512) 236-0074.