Tito’s Vodka Funds Local Community Gardens
Block to Block program supports 25 cities across the U.S.
By Lina Fisher,
2:36PM, Thu. Nov. 19, 2020
Community gardens don’t just provide a hobby for green thumbs with extra time; they are also a vital source of fresh produce for their surrounding community. During the pandemic, as food insecurity has risen, that role has proven more and more integral.
Community gardens in Austin were deemed an essential business back in March, so the gardeners who owned their own plots could continue maintaining them; but many rely on volunteer efforts to sustain more labor intensive maintenance tasks, like fixing fences or building raised beds. At the beginning of the year, Tito’s Vodka, locally grown giant of alcohol distribution, was planning on filling that need with the manpower of their employees as a part of their Block to Block program, an initiative across 25 cities including San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, where Tito’s employees volunteer in community gardens and Tito’s provides the resources for supplies.
But then the pandemic hit, and everyone’s plans had to change. Tito’s wasn’t able to provide the volunteer effort due to safety concerns around large gatherings; Lisa Nuccio, field sales manager for Texas and Oklahoma, says the question then became “how do we continue to interact, but stay safe and keep our community partner safe?” Some creativity was required to pivot to a more financial support structure. Lisa Huddleson, director of strategic philanthropy at Tito’s who started the program, says having employee leadership on the ground in each city became integral to the program.
Nuccio says, “Each community is so different... that's why it's so important that the Tito's employees have relationships with [the gardens] so they can assess what the needs are and how we can best support. In L.A. for example, they've worked with the L.A. community garden council for years and they already have that relationship; there could be other cities where we say it looks like we've got great employee engagement, let's find an org to partner with.”
Tito’s had given in kind donations to the Austin Parks Foundation for years, but the Block to Block gift of $42,500 came at a serendipitous time. APF had just taken the reins of fiscal community garden sponsorship from the Sustainable Food Center, which had decided to focus more on fighting food insecurity at a policy level. Kathleen Barron, Senior Programs Manager at APF, says they were “just figuring out what kind of support we [could] offer – so it's exciting that they've given us these resources early in the process.”
Barron says the first order of business is to figure out an equitable budget so that the 12 community gardens they sponsor know exactly how much funding they can apply for: At first, when gardens got wind of the funding, “some… had very modest projects and others were shooting for the moon because none of them knew what was possible; we wanna make sure people aren't getting less just because they didn't know to ask for more.” After coming up with a more detailed budget, says Barron, “it'll be easier to determine how long those funds will last – but we're thinking in terms of a year. We want to get that money into the gardens as soon as possible.”
Each garden can apply for funding for their particular projects, but right away, APF has plans to hire the Texas Conservation Corps to help with maintenance for all gardens that need it – “they have a lot of maintenance backlog happening because of not being able to have volunteers.” APF also wants to provide translation and interpretation programs for community gardens with more non-English-speakers. “Some of the gardens… have struggled with participation, with people who don't speak English fluently, in particular Gus Garcia and Festival Beach community gardens,” which have larger immigrant populations, says Barron. Translation services could help people navigate community garden contracts, among other barriers to access.
Another way Tito’s effort has gotten around pandemic restrictions is with GroBoxes, wooden boxes filled with seedlings from Tito’s own farm at their distillery. Restorative Farms, a Dallas initiative combating food insecurity, made the boxes, and Tito’s distributed 100 of them to community gardens in Austin through APF. Neal Charles, site director for Adelphi Acre community garden, has used the GroBox they received to rebuild the children’s garden at Adelphi. “It made it faster to put together the configuration – required fewer hands on deck to do it,” says Charles. “This is a great start in helping community gardens and I'd be curious to see particularly for gardens that are just now starting up, how that support can go a long way towards helping to get those up and running. It would be a really good investment for APF and Tito’s to also do… the kind of outreach where you're really touching base with people on the ground.”
Tito’s plans to do just that as soon as COVID calms down. Nuccio says, “I want [Block to Block] to continue to grow and expand, and I hope 2021 offers an opportunity to get out and get our hands in the dirt. There’s an increased need for access to healthy food not just in Austin but nationwide… with the pandemic we're seeing more and more companies step up to the plate – the more we can help the communities we live in, we should be doing that.”
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