Category: Food accessibility

Johnson’s Backyard Garden: Keeping Austin Fresh

Filmed and Edited by: Alejandra Martinez, Kristen Hubby and Taylor Villarreal

Photos by: Alejandra Martinez, Kristen Hubby, Taylor Villarreal

Infographics by: Marysabel Cardozo

Story by: Taylor Villarreal and Marysabel Cardozo

 

Twelve years ago, a man named Brenton Johnson converted his family’s backyard garden in Austin’s East Side into a million dollar business.

“Pretty soon I was growing more produce than our family could eat, so I started selling at the Austin Farmers’ Market,” Johnson said in an interview with Find Farm Credit. “We didn’t even know what to charge the first time we were there.”

Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Backyard Garden, who formerly served as the Program Administrator for the Water Conservation Field Services Program in Austin, and says he has always believed that “human energy consumption practices need some serious reconsideration.”

Inspired by a Japanese farm that fed its’ community through a prepaid service, Johnson set out to kickstart one of Texas’ first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations: Johnson’s Backyard Garden.

A CSA operation gives members of a community direct access to high quality, fresh produce grown locally by regional farmers. They are also often referred to as personalized box subscriptions.

To Johnson, CSA’s are “a relationship between the farmer and its customers. And essentially, the customers share in the risk of the farm by prepaying for a portion of the harvest.”

When you become a member of a CSA, you are purchasing a “share” of the crops. JBG offers CSA memberships in over ten major cities and suburbs across Texas. Austin members can pick up their food at one of 24 locations throughout the greater Austin area, and new pick-up sites are being added as needed.

“Through my work with JBG, I have aimed to strike a balance between these challenges and the resource-consuming aspects of food production,” Johnson says on his LinkedIn biography. “I continue to strive for constant improvement and community involvement through the most earth-friendly, biodynamic-conscious, organic farming methods.”

To date, JBG employs 20 workers, feeds over 1,000 consumers and grosses over $1 million in sales annually. The farm welcomes volunteers five days out of the week at either of their two locations, The Garfield Farm, where all of their produce is grown, or the Hergotz Packing Shed (better known as “The Barn”). A half-day of volunteering gets the workers one CSA share of seasonal vegetables.

Lyndsie Decologero, a Post Production Manager, started at JBG three years ago as a volunteer at Garfield Farms where she planted and picked produce to be transported to The Barn. From there she was promoted to manage accounts with wholesale retailers, such as Wheatsville Co-Op and Whole Foods Market.

“My first day volunteering we were harvesting sweet potatoes and digging through the soil. By the end of the day I had dirt crammed so far into my fingernails,” Delcologero recalled. “It was such an amazing experience because people really don’t realize just how much work goes behind getting their food to the table. It was truly an amazing and inspiring moment for me, and I hope more people start to learn about what it means to buy locally and organically.”

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Sustainable Food Center and the Future

Michelle Sanchez Alexa Harrington Claire Rodgers

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Is Rainey Street Washing Away?

The House of the Rising Sun

Beef prices on the moo-ve – How Austin businesses keep up

An Iron Works Barbeque chef cuts through their brisket.

Thanks in part to the long drought that has engulfed Texas, rising beef prices have left consumers in a state of sticker shock.

But despite the 60 percent price increase for a pound of brisket—from $2.21 to $3.52—some Austin businesses are resisting the temptation to charge their customers more for what is becoming a very valuable morsel of meat.

From farm to plate, raising cattle and selling it has become a less profitable endeavor for almost everyone in the state that is the country’s leading cattle producer each year. Just ask Rob Cunningham, the owner of Coyote Creek Farm, a certified organic farm just east of Austin.

“In 2011, when the drought was at its worst, it affected us in that we had 32 or 35 head [of cattle] at the time, and we sold down to 12,” Cunningham said. “The reason we did that was because we didn’t have the grass. If we had millions and millions of dollars in the bank, we would have just bought hay.”

2015 was the first year in which the overall Texas cattle herd increased after eight straight years of drastic decline. The state finally received a normal amount of rain in 2014, which helped grow more grass for the cattle to feed on. But no one is out of the woods yet. The USDA deemed 156 Texas counties disaster areas last month, thanks to the drought.

The pressure to fall in line with the new business model of charging more for cattle was intense, but Cunningham and his family never really in the cards.

“We haven’t changed our price of beef in three years,” Cunningham said. “Cattle prices are really high right now, but I have been able to maintain my price for our grass-fed beef.”

The loyalty of his customers helped make the decision easier.

“Our customers got a really good deal when they buy grass-fed beef from us,” Cunningham said. “About 80 percent of my business is repeat customers. They know our farm. They know our animals and how they’re raised. They enjoy the taste of our beef.”

But while this behind-the-scenes drama plays out on farms across the state, others are only concerned with how hard it is to put beef on the table.

Aaron Morris, the owner of Iron Works BBQ in downtown Austin, said that his customers have certainly felt the financial food struggle caused by the cattle shortage.

“Well, everybody has to eat, BBQ is a great pastime, and so I don’t see that it has affected our business so much as it’s affected maybe what people are able to eat, unfortunately,” Morris said.

Knowing that his customers’ wallets are straining to cover what they typically enjoy, Morris, like Cunningham, has decided against hiking up prices.

“We haven’t passed the price along too much to our customers,” Morris said. “We’ve seen a doubling in our costs but we can’t really double our price, so it’s affected our business in that it has made our margins tighter.”

Those tighter margins apparently extend into Morris’ very own home.

“In our house and with my family, we have kind of switched ourselves to more pork just because beef prices are not just more expensive for us as a restaurant, but if you go to the store yourself, you’ll see that our beef prices are up dramatically from where they were a couple years ago,” Morris said.

Switching to pork hasn’t been all bad, though. At the very least, it’s given Morris more creative license in his cooking and introduced a new menu item to Iron Works.

“We have been cooking a lot of pork at home, and we decided to introduce that at the restaurant a couple of months ago,” Morris said. “We now do pulled pork, which is a product that has been very well-received, and we added it strictly because the price of beef is so high.”

All it would take to make everything right in this beef-crazy little part of the world is a little more rain.

“For the success of BBQ, we need the drought to let up and we need as many cattle out there in America as possible,” Morris said.

Inside 6th Street

Food Is Free Project Leaves Austin

John V. Edwards and roommate Jeff Armstrong sort the furniture before they move to Arkansas. The Kickstarter campaign raised $45,000 but fell short of their goal of $250,000. (Credit: Lingnan Ellen Chen)

By Joe McMahon, Andrew Masi, Jared Wynne, Ellen Chen


Austin’s continued growth may have driven from the city one if its most unique tenants.

The Food is Free Project is a nonprofit organization that began operating close to three years ago. Started with a single frontyard garden, the project soon spread through the surrounding neighborhood and turned into a communal happening.

“Food unites us.”
That’s the message that was given by John VanDeusen Edwards in a recent promotional video. It was assembled in the hopes of attracting community support and donations to Food is Free. Those funds were made necessary when the owner of the land Food is Free’s headquarters had to that point been based at decided that he was going to sell to a new buyer.

The location at 5608 Joe Sayers Ave. is yet another to fall victim to the growing influx of new Austin residents. Over the past 25 years, the inner city’s population has nearly doubled, with much of the metropolitan expansion turning inward as old properties are converted into new, more efficient uses of the land.

When he discovered that Food is Free would soon feel the effects of the city’s changing landscape, Edwards was concerned.

“It was disheartening, honestly, looking around at our farm, what we’ve put so much work into,” Edwards said.

The landowner, who declined comment, had made up his mind. Edwards and his compatriots at Food is Free would need to find a new home. To do that, Edwards reached out for monetary contributions.

The organization established an online funding campaign using Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website. The stated goal was to raise at least $250,000 towards the establishment of a new and permanent headquarters for the project, a place where the group’s efforts could be furthered and those new to communal gardening could be trained in the practice.

The campaign was not as successful as Edwards had hoped.

“Our campaign was raising more money than we’d ever had, but we’d asked for $250,000 to buy a new permanent home and we were at 20 or 30 thousand,” Edwards said.

But as concerns were growing at Food is Free, a new benefactor stepped into the picture.

A landowner offered to provide Food is Free with a new space for the headquarters. The individual, whose identity has not been revealed, had been looking for a group to develop the land into a space that could be developed and used for teaching about environmentally friendly practices such as gardening.

The only catch was the location: Fayetteville, Arkansas, far removed from the city of Austin where the project had originated. But that wasn’t going to stop Edwards and his team.

“It almost seemed destined. It was really amazing,” Edwards said.

And while it would mean leaving Austin, Food is Free has already expanded beyond the city’s boundaries. Close to 200 cities have established gardens through the project’s outreach. Those cities cover 26 countries, including Egypt, New Zealand, Thailand and Tunisia.

“That (the project) has already gone around the world and back again proves that it’s an idea that resonates with so many,” Edwards said.

Map of Food Is Free locations in the United States – By Joe McMahon

Note: Markers are not exact locations of farms. 

Food is Free has been able to expand in such a way largely on the strength of the universality of its message.

“So many people today are living paycheck to paycheck, working jobs that they hate, and they feel trapped,” Edwards said. “If food, water and shelter are met then all of a sudden so many of our problems go away.”

It’s a message that has attracted support not only from communities like the one that sprung up around Food is Free in Austin, but also from those with a strong platform for spreading it.

Comedian Reggie Watts offered his support to the project, calling communal gardens “an essential part of a growing and aspiring community.”

That the city of Austin no longer has room for such a thing might speak to where it is headed in the wake of so much growth.

Ranked by Forbes as the fastest-growing city of the year, Austin boasts a low unemployment rate of less than 5%, a rate lower than the percentage by which the local economy grew last year. With tech giants such as Apple and Dell in the area, and new entrants such as Dropbox continuing to arrive, these numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise.

But they do hide the fact that smaller organizations like Food is Free, which have in large part helped to establish Austin’s modern identity, are feeling the pressure.

Grocery shopping trends check out the digital aisle

By Joe McMahon, Alice Kozdemba and Silvana Di Ravenna

Grocery shopping in Austin, like many things in these days of smartphones and tablets, is going digital. Instacart is one of the newest services that offers Austinites an online grocery shopping service with HEB, Central Market, Royal Blue, Costco and Whole Foods.

The idea of grocery shopping at the touch of a button is gaining popularity in the U.S. as more grocery deliver services are entering the market. Photo by Silvana Di Ravenna

 

Instacart allows customers to purchase all stock items from these Austin area stores, with the exception of alcohol and in house prepared food items. Customers have the option of getting their order delivered to an address within the city limits or picking up the order at the store. Adam Alfter, an Instacart representative at the Whole Foods Market in Austin, spoke about his experiences delivering food, and the ease the service offers to customers

“When I used to deliver, it would be to a lot of young mothers,” Alfter said. “People who are busy with kids who wanted to bypass the hassle of wrangling them into a car and getting them to the grocery store.”

 

Alfter, a full-time chef,  works with Instacart on the side. He no longer delivers, but stays in the store and does the actual shopping for customers who place their orders online.

“Probably one of the reasons I do this on the side is because I don’t mind being in a grocery store,” Alfter said. “It’s obnoxious going grocery shopping for some people because it can take two hours sometimes.”

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Accoring to Rachel Malish, Whole Foods’ Austin Media Community Relations Coordinator, the selling approach grocery delivery services are pitching  to consumers is that it saves shoppers time.

“I think what it does for us is it gives time back to customers when they don’t have time to go to the store and explore the aisles,” she said.

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Instacart was initially launched  in San Fransisco in 2012. It has since then expanded and Austin became the 12th city to offer the service in May.

“One of the things that we did when we launched it in Austin, was that we asked people if they wanted to use Instacart and in return we gave them a $5 gift card that they could go use in the store for a cup of coffee and read a magazine, or go to the bar and get a flight of wine,” Malish said, “So there’s definitely still effort put into bringing customers into the store as well as encouraging them to use the Instacart services.”

Instacart announced  a national deal with Whole Foods Market on Sept. 8 but despite it’s national score, it isn’t the first service to help shoppers speed up the weekly chore in Austin. Some smaller local delivery services such as Austin Grocer, Speedy Grocer and Greenling have all been in operation longer than Instacart. Founded in 2005, Greenling, which operates solely as a delivery service, also has the full selection of a grocery store, and everything they carry is locally or sustainably produced, or certified organic. Aside from the organic focus, Greenling Marketing Team Lead, Aspen Lewis, described the business relationship they have with farmers.

“We work directly with the producers and distributors,” Lewis said. “And we do have a warehouse, so local farmers will come directly to us from their farms and the rest we buy from distributors just like Whole Foods or any other grocery store would.”

“It’s definitely a space that’s heating up,” she said. “Some services only provide local produce so it’s much more of niche market, and then there’s services that don’t actually hold inventory, that just goes by on-demand. We’re able to offer a wider variety of items because we do hold our inventory and we can take customer requests more easily.”

Lewis, who said she has long had a passion for teaching people how to cook, thinks that home delivery helps consumers embrace traditional cooking and promotes healthy eating habits.

“One of our main tenants is that people have increasingly gotten away from the kitchen and that’s the reason our food has gotten so bad,” she added, “So making it exciting to create things at home is something I really enjoy about my job.”

These businesses also take to social media and highlight customers making these healthier choices.

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With socialization, transportation and now grocery shopping going digital, it’s anyone’s guess what will be next.

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Not Just a Fad: Austin’s Evolving Locavore Movement

By Sara Cabral, Jane Claire Hervey, Larisa Manescu and Olivia Starich

 

Banner Draft

Pop-up tents form the aisles of HOPE Farmers Market at Saltillo Plaza in East Austin. Photos/editing by Olivia Starich.

 

 

On Sundays, Plaza Saltillo becomes more than a plot of concrete park.

 

The community space, nestled between the railroad tracks and a public housing complex on the intersection of 5th Street and Comal Street, transforms into a mosaic of booths and tents showcasing some of Austin’s local vendors. Called the HOPE Farmers Market, the weekly four-hour event (rain or shine) gives farmers and artisans a chance to sell their homegrown and homemade goods.

HOPE, which stands for Helping Other People Everywhere, debuted as a farmers market in 2009, but it only represents a small part of Austin’s local food movement. Typically, urban areas have their own local food systems that focus on the production and distribution of local food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local food is “defined in terms of social and supply chain characteristics” and is “related to the distance between food producers and consumers.”

For Austin, the local food system includes five types of participants that buy and sell local food: small- and large-scale farmers; farm-to-table liaisons; local food retailers (farmers markets, restaurants and grocery stores); local food awareness organizations and local food consumers. In Austin’s 2013 Economic Food Sector Report, all of these participants contributed to the more than $4 billion expended on all food in Austin in 2011. Although the amount spent specifically on the production, distribution and consumption of local food in Austin has not yet been quantified, those involved in the local food movement can speak to its impact.

 

John Lash, the founder and owner of Farm-to-Table LLC., created his company to help bridge the gap between Austin’s farmers and food retailers. In 2009, he began buying produce from small- and large-scale local farms to sell to restaurants. According to a 2007 U.S Census, there are almost 9,000 farms serving the Austin area; Lash aims to serve as many of these as possible with the goal of helping restaurants access local food sources.

“More and more restaurants see it as their obligation to serve their customers food that is good and healthy,” he said. “For the most part, but with some exceptions, they can get better-quality food from local producers.”

However, supplying restaurants with local food comes with its own set of problems. Seasons, drought, freezes and other environmental factors can keep farms from producing year-round (or at all) and crop availability varies. Despite the large impact of the environment, Lash said that the biggest barrier to supplying locally-sourced food is distribution.

“The challenge is less being able to provide and how to get it from the farmer to the customer,” Lash said.

Lash coordinates with multiple farms each week to provide local food to his clients, which include low-price restaurants like P. Terry’s and more expensive establishments like Vespaio on South Congress. He either accepts deliveries or picks up produce from the farms himself. He also sells to seven Austin schools, so the cafeterias can incorporate fresh produce into the schools’ lunches.

“Hopefully, more and more schools will demand that, so that all of a sudden students are exposed to the idea and understand the [connection] between X and Y [farmers and food on the table] as they grow up,” he added.

Other organizations, like Austin’s Urban Roots, have tried to intercept local food ignorance by exposing the public to local food at a younger age. The non-profit, which had its beginnings in East Austin, offers 30 local youth paid internships to run a 3.5-acre farm every year. The project typically harvests about 30,000 pounds of produce per season to be sold at farmers markets or donated to local food kitchens. Max Elliott, Urban Roots’ executive director, said that the program aims to connect kids to agriculture, while teaching them the values of hard work and sustainable lifestyles.

“What we’re trying to do with Urban Roots is trying to provide young people with opportunities to really amplify their voice within the food movement and have the community celebrate them as youth leaders,” Elliott said. “For me, it’s about power. How do you ensure that there’s more diversity within the local food movement? Have leadership.”

To maximize their impact, Urban Roots also takes young students on farm tour field trips, and the group plans to visit classrooms this year to spread local food awareness. Elliott said that although Urban Roots has had its successes, Austin’s local food movement still largely lacks accessibility.

“If you really look at where food is being consumed and being purchased, 99 percent of food is being bought in grocery stores, corner shops and restaurants. There’s not a lot of food that’s really moving through the local food community,” he said. “If we want to improve access, we’re really going to have to look at the bigger players, looking at the grocery stores, corner stores.”

Austin is also home to groups that try to promote awareness of local food among adults. Slow Food, the Austin branch of a national organization that considers itself a response to fast food, focuses on reconnecting people with the food they eat. The group hosts free, open educational events to teach the public about various food topics, such as gardening, seasonal food and the importance of food appreciation.

“A lot of our programs grow organically from either the feedback we hear from members in terms of educational topics or areas where we know there is a lot of need locally for fundraising or awareness,” Ashley Cheng, Austin Slow Food representative, said.

For HOPE Farmers Market manager Matthew Olson, local food system awareness and communication between farmers, citizens and the city are important for the survival of their market. For example, citizen complaints in December of last year concerning local, urban farms resulted in radical changes for Austin’s urban farm codes.

“What that’s been doing is burdening those farms, these small, urban farms in East Austin with having to attend city ordinance meetings, having to potentially pay legal fees for attorneys to help draft code compliance literatures,” Olson said. “In the big sense, it takes them away from being farmers.”

Raj Patel, a local food activist and author of the novel “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System,” said these conversations between farmers, the community, and local government are important for developing any urban area’s local food system. The more that grassroots movements such as small urban farms get people talking, the more inclusive the conversation about local food becomes, he said.

“There’s a dialectical relation between what the government does and what grassroots demand and how people demand it,” Patel said.

In this sense, the conversation which drives Austin’s local food system is expanding and local food is now incorporated into many of the city’s communities and institutions. Similar to HOPE Farmers Market, the Sustainable Food Center hosts multiple farmers markets in various Austin areas, from downtown to the Sunset Valley.

To provide access to various socioeconomic demographics, these markets offer the Double Dollar Incentive Program (DDIP), which allows families and individuals who receive SNAP benefits (which were formerly food stamps) to double the dollar amount that they can spend on fruits and vegetables.

Even the University of Texas at Austin has made a move toward local food, with the development of its own student-run micro-farm, which plans to provide the campus’ cafeterias with organic, locally-grown food.

No matter how Austin’s local food system manifests itself, the movement is bound to grow. In a recent report published by the USDA, consumers have shown a significant want for more organic, local food in their diets.

“People [in Austin] are ready to look out for one another and to take fairly unusual steps to be able to put their money where their mouths are,” Patel said.

But, as with any local food system, Patel said that the continuation of the movement goes beyond asking simple questions about local food’s production, distribution and accessibility. The true questions lie in making an urban area’s local food system a profitable part of the city’s economy.

“If the workers [in the local food system] are being paid properly, not only at Wheatsville [a grocery store], but also the people in the fields, it’s going to be expensive. So what do you do? Either you screw the poorest people in America out of money, or you pay more,” Patel said. “That’s something that I want to see the local food movement tackle. Because I think everyone should eat that way, and the fact that not everyone can is an indictment of the way we eat in America. What’s wrong with dreaming that big?”

Austin’s local food system has only gained momentum throughout the last five to six years and the direction and success of the movement is hard to pinpoint. However, community members within Austin’s local food movement, like HOPE’s manager Olson, believe that more people are bound to catch on.

“I think ‘local’ is the new buzz word and what you should be looking for if you are a conscious consumer,” Olson said. “You’re voting with your dollar. You’re supporting your local economy when you do that.”

Looking for local food on a night out? Check out this interactive map of Austin’s locavore scene, which includes UrbanSpoon ratings, prices, and website links: