Changing Focus and Location at the Sustainable Food Center

Critics charge original mission of serving poor has strayed

Sustainable Food Center community and youth gardens coordinator Felipe Camacho abruptly left the nonprofit over differences in the structure and direction of SFC.
Sustainable Food Center community and youth gardens coordinator Felipe Camacho abruptly left the nonprofit over differences in the structure and direction of SFC. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

A strong candidate for the ugliest architecture in Austin could well be the Twin Towers, a pair of squat glass cubes – gold-tinted, no less – that shimmer over their Cameron Road neighborhood like part of Madonna's wardrobe from her Blond Ambition era. In one fourth-floor office of the west tower is the Sustainable Food Center, a 12-year-old nonprofit that encourages healthy cooking and community gardening, and that until this fall made its humble home in central East Austin. Aesthetically, the glittery digs are a poor match for an organization that encourages Austinites to get flour on their shirts and dirt under their fingernails, and as such they also make a handy symbol for other changes afoot. Staff says that the SFC is merely trying to fulfill the same mission in a changing Austin, but others see an SFC that's moving away from its down-home roots.

"I've been watching [with] increasing concern as it drifted away from its original mission," said Kate Fitzgerald, who helped found the SFC in 1993 and who directed it until 2000. "It's really a shell of its former organization."

The SFC attacks the issue of food security on three fronts. There's a "happy kitchen," which offers classes in cooking cheap, nutritious meals; community and youth gardening, which has taught gardening classes at local elementary schools and supported community gardens like El Jardin Alegre on East Second Street; and farmer's markets, including ones where low-income single mothers can redeem federal WIC (women, infants, children) vouchers for fresh produce.

The SFC also runs the Downtown Farmers' Market, whose clients tend to be more chic than WIC. The recent success of the downtown market is what first got Fitzgerald's attention, since the shoppers at Republic Square Park aren't exactly the constituents the SFC initially set out to serve. Then came the iridescent gold boxes. Finally, longtime SFC community and youth gardens coordinator Felipe Camacho, who had spent eight years building relationships with gardeners and who is active in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood, abruptly left the organization after tensions over how to divide administrative and hands-on work culminated in the SFC hiring a project manager to supervise him, despite his years of experience. "I feel like I was yanked out of the game," said Camacho. "My work with the SFC was not done."

SFC staff say they were sad to lose Camacho, but defend any changes afoot as necessary to grow the organization. For all the symbolism of the move northeast, for example, it may be more symbolic of changes in East Austin than of changes in the SFC itself. When the SFC staff learned they had to leave their home in a portable at Sanchez elementary (AISD needed the portable back) the group shopped around for new offices. They found that space in central East Austin had gotten mighty pricey, even for the most run-down properties. Deciding that a close relationship with Mother Earth and Her miraculous processes does not necessarily mean encountering those processes in the course of day-to-day business – finding mouse droppings in your files, for example, or having to talk a little louder so visitors won't hear the rat scurrying overhead – they went instead with the Twin Towers, whose less-trendy ZIP code was matched by a lower price. "As 78702 becomes more gentrified, low-income populations are moving north," said Molly Jensen, SFL's director of development and communications. And on Clayton Lane, she noted, "We're smack dab in the middle of an area at high risk for diet-related problems."

SFC's gilded abode is near St. Johns and Reagan High – the perfect place for the organization's new initiative to reach African-Americans, such as through training mentors to teach cooking classes at church. The organization has evolved in other ways, many of which are tied to the exigencies of fundraising, as well as lessons learned from 12 years in operation. The Happy Kitchen has branched out from cooking classes into a stronger focus on nutrition demonstrations – quick lessons that illustrate how much sugar is in a can of Coke, for example – because it's a preference of the $78,000 Steps to a Healthier Austin grant that gives the Happy Kitchen half its funding. The emphasis on fundraising is paying off, at least on paper – the budget hit $550,000 this year, double what it was a few years back. As for the Downtown Farmers' Market, the clientele may be more yuppie, but the real winners are still the 55 small farmers who depend on the market. "It's giving our local farmers more outlets for their product and enabling them to make a greater share if not all of their income from their farming activities," said SFC executive director J.P. Kloninger.

Still, the emotional resonance of 78702 is powerful, and the SFC hopes to move back south – the big dream is to build a facility on land it owns near the community garden on Alamo Street. And staff say they hope Camacho will remain involved, while Camacho says he plans to continue promoting gardening to his neighbors. "The most important thing is helping individuals grow food locally," he said. "That's a basic step people can take to empower themselves and to take control of their lives."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Sustainable Food Center, Kate Fitzgerald, the Happy Kitchen, Molly Jensen, J.P. Kloninger, Felipe Camacho

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